Great Horned Owl: One of Pennsylvania's Earliest Nesters

May 14, 2017  •  5 Comments

The Great Horned Owl is one of the most common owls in North America and just about any other semi-open habitat between the Arctic and the tropics.  In Pennsylvania, they are one of the first birds to begin laying eggs in the new year.

This year, I had the opportunity to watch two nests of Great Horned Owls.  One was in Butler County, Pennsylvania and the other at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania.  I was able to visit the Butler County nest frequently but I only made two trips to Erie.  During the two times I was there, I logged about 14 hours in front of the nest.

Below is a photo of the hen owl incubating eggs on February 11th at Presque Isle. Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlPresque Isle in Erie, PA

 

Great Horned Owls typically nest in tall trees such as cottonwood, juniper, beech, pine, and others.  Unlike other birds, who painstakingly carry branches and twigs to build a nest, the Great Horned Owl usually adopts a nest that was built by another species.  They also use cavities in live trees, dead snags, deserted buildings, cliff ledges, and human-made platforms.

At the Butler County nest on February 20th, the hen appears to be incubating.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

Because they reuse old nests, they often consist of sticks and vary widely in size.  The size depends on what species originally built the nest.  Some nests they have been known to occupy were from hawks, crows, ravens, herons, and squirrels.  Great Horned Owls do "make the nest their own" by lining it with materials such as shreds of bark, leaves, downy feathers plucked from their own breast, fur or feathers from prey, and trampled pellets.

Hen on the Butler County nest on February 24th. 

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

Speaking of adopting the nests of other birds, I witnessed a very obvious example of that in April, 2013.  While visiting a local Heron Rookery I noticed a strange formation in one of the nests.  After a closer look, I realized it was two Great Horned Owl nestlings.  Since the owl picks their nest much earlier than the heron, they were mixed into the colony.  Talk about keeping your enemies close. Great Horned Owl Nestlings & Great Blue HeronGreat Horned Owl Nestlings & Great Blue HeronThe Great Horned Owl nests mostly in stick nests from other birds. These Owletes are in the middle of a Great Blue Heron rookery.

 

The Great Horned Owl is a powerful predator that can take down birds and mammals larger than itself but they also attack smaller targets such as mice and frogs. 

 

On this March 12th visit, I got my first glimpse of the owlet as it was getting attention from the hen.  The remaining images are from Butler County until I note a change.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

The warm sunlight of March 12th was comforting for the sleepy hen.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

As the evening of March 13th was upon us, the sun disappeared and the hen became more active.  She was beginning to make short flights away from the nest.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

I stayed at the nest all evening on March 16th with hopes of seeing the growing baby.  It showed itself but I had to reposition myself to get a good view.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

The location of this nest was positioned in good photography sunlight only about one hour in the evening.  Otherwise, it came from undesirable directions causing shadows.  I returned on March 22nd in hopes to find the owlet covered in sunlight.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

This photo was on March 25th minutes after the hen fed the baby.  You can see a little piece of meat still stuck on her beak.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

After changing position once again, I got a great family portrait on March 25th.  I use the word "family" loosely because the father isn't in the photo.  I assure you he was a provider but I never saw him.  In the early evening he would call to the hen from deep in the woods.  She always responded but I never saw him.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

As the owlet grew the hen was seldom in the nest.  However, she didn't perch nearby either.  The previous photo was the last time I saw the hen.  The next photo was made on March 27th.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

Since these "used" nests deteriorate over the course of the breeding season and are usually not reused in later years, I look forward to next February to see if anything occupies this nest.

The lone owlet fledged within days after this April 5th photo.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlButler County, PA

 

Here is a short video compilation of the Butler County owl nest from February to late in the nesting season.

Great Horned Owl Nesting

 

Back to the nest in Erie, PA.  This nest is in the top of a dead tree stump.  The stump is about 20 feet tall and has been reused year after year.  I don't know its history but I know it's been at least three years that I've known about the nest.

The remaining photos were made on my last trip to Presque Ilse on April 14th.

This nest is in a location that provides an opportunity for anyone to witness the growth of Great Horned Owl nestlings.  Situated a short distance from a paved bike path it is easily wheelchair accessible.  The owls don't seem to mind and people respect the wildlife by keeping their distance.  Actually, you are not allowed to exit the path and "Big Brother" is watching.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlPresque Isle in Erie, PA

 

Speaking for myself, during the longs stays at the nest I are hoping for one thing.  I want to photograph interaction between the owlets or between a parent and the owlets.  That's it!  If I only wanted a portrait like the one above, I would be in and out in 30 minutes. 

It looks like the photographers and other onlookers might be a little boring for the owlets.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlPresque Isle in Erie, PA

 

The hen is usually found perching in a dense grove of Hemlock trees near the nest.  On this evening she came out and flew to a few different perches.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlPresque Isle in Erie, PA

 

From what I've heard, the hen is around the nest more than the male owl.  However, we were greeted by both on this day.  Below is the male perched at the opposite edge of the woods line.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlPresque Isle in Erie, PA

 

The growing owlets are comical and fun to watch.  I didn't shoot any video at this nest because there are too many people talking and I prefer to have a little seclusion for video.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlPresque Isle in Erie, PA

 

The sun had already set when the hen finally came to the nest.  The family didn't strike an award winning pose on the nest but I finally had the opportunity to see the hen with the owlets.  

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlPresque Isle in Erie, PA

 

As the skies darkened, I managed one more photo while the hen was feeding in the corner of the nest.

Great-horned OwlGreat-horned OwlPresque Isle in Erie, PA

 

Both of these owlets fledged the nest within the first 5 days of May ending a successful breeding season once again.

Thanks for looking,

Dan


Comments

sara(non-registered)
Just finished reading your eagle blog with the amazing photos and videos and now this! The owl pictures are incredible. I can't wait to see more. Thank you so much for letting us see your work.
Sue Stear(non-registered)
Dan you never fail to amaze us with your awesome pictures.
Jim Weixel(non-registered)
Great photos and video. Hours of work! Loved the photo of the heron rookery!
Teresa(non-registered)
I love the owl blog! There is just something so amazing about them. Thanks to you I'm able to see the turn of the heads, how one can blend into the tree so well, the different coloring and the chaschasnges over a span of time with the owlets was so cool! Thanks so much for the beauty of it all!
Dave Ellis(non-registered)
Fantastic set of pics and video Dan, and thanks for the informative commentary as well. First class post!
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