Today seems to be an appropriate day for reminiscing about some of the superb owls I have had the fortune to see over the last year. Although owls are common around here they are remarkable elusive and stealthy. Every time I am walking through the forest I cannot but wonder how many owls I pass by without noticing them. This is of course a rhetorical question that I do not want to know the answer to.
On this sunny mild winters day we came across one of the Whitemud Ravine Great Horned Owls perching in a tree overlooking the creek. It was soaking up the suns rays and seemed fast asleep. I cannot blame it. After the last few weeks of bitterly cold weather the -10 C day must have felt nice and balmy. According to eBird the last time a Great Horned Owl was observed in the ravine was in October last year. Has the owl been there the whole time, but just not seen? Has it been somewhere else and only recently returned to this location? Is it alone, or does it have a mate? The owl we saw was close to a tree where a pair of Great Horned Owls raised a pair of owlets last spring. Is this one of those owls and is it back for another breading season? So many questions and no answers. I will be keeping a close eye on the owls in the ravine and hopefully we will see another season of successful owlets born and raised in our very own backyard ravine.
There is a rather unique tree down in the Whitemud Ravine. It is large and tall and half way up its trunk there is a l large cavity that has been used as a nesting cavity by Great Horned Owls for a number of years, most recently last spring. The other day I noticed that the base of the trunk had been wrapped in wired mesh. With the beavers coming back with a vengeance over the last few weeks it is hardly surprising that the city has tried to protect the tree. The City of Edmonton’s official policy on reducing beaver damage is to protect “high value trees” using metal mesh around the base of the trunk. As this is the only know Great Horned Owl nest it this part of the ravine this is definitely a high-value tree (see post 32). At this time of the year, the owls are nowhere to be see. One can only hope that the will be back next spring with a new batch of adorable owlets.
I had never been down to the Whitemud Ravine in the morning before. Last Tuesday I was off from work and woke up early to a beautiful sunny morning. It was the perfect morning for a nature walk down by the creek. Said and done, at 7 am I started out down at the Snow Valley parking lot. Right off the bat, the birding kicked in at full gear with a bunch of Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) hanging out in the trees by the parking lot. These were lifers for me and by playing their call through the Merlin App I had them sitting all around me in the trees curiously eyeing me. I can just imagine what must have been going though their bird brains, “Is this an intruder?” or “Is this a potential mate?”. That was a great start to a morning of some awesome birding. Other than two lifers, the highlight was definitely the Great Horned Owlets that were hanging out in their cavity. They were about 3 weeks old and getting quite large. By owl standards they would probably be considered teenagers. They sure behaved like teenagers, curious, oblivious to the dangers of the outside world, not following their owl parent instructions etc. There they were, perching precariously at the edge of the nest and ogling passersby. The sudden croaking of ravens directed their attention skywards. I am not sure if they would be aware of the dangers the ravens pose, but their parents definitely are. Dad, sitting in a nearby tree, started hooting and right away mom was inbound. She landed at the edge of the cavity pushing her owlets inside. The owlets had none of it as they tried to get past mom to check out what the commotion was about. Although the mother barely fit in the nest she blocked the entrance pushing her owlets back into the nest as she intently eyed the skies for the ravens. I spend well over an hour at the nest, snapping pictures and shooting videos of the chicks.
Below is a video clip (13:16 min) of the action at the nest. Mom arrives at 7:32 and the person you can hear talking and shooting pictures in the background is Wayne Oaks, the resident Whitemud Ravine birding afictionado.
All in all, it was an amazing and beautiful morning full of birds, two of which were lifers (Chipping Sparrow and the American Goldfinch). I could have continued but after 3.5 hrs and 6 km my stomach started to grumble so it was time for a second breakfast and more coffee. This experience has opened my eyes to the virtues of early morning birding. The weekend cannot arrive soon enough.
Here is the eBird summary of the morning.
Edmonton–Whitemud Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA May 21, 2019 7:07 AM – 10:37 AM Protocol: Traveling 6.341 kilometer(s) 18 species
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 5 Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 12 Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) 2 Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) 3 Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) 5 Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) 4 Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 1 Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) 1 Sound only Common Raven (Corvus corax) 3 Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 15 American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 4 House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 1 American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 2 Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) 3 Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) 3 White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) 1 Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 2 Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 1
The female Great Horned Owl down at the Whitemud Ravine has now been holed up in her tree for 2 months (that’s 60 days folks). There is reliable intelligence (i.e. picture evidence) showing that her eggs now have hatched and that she has at least two adorable fuzzy chicks. I went down to check out the new family on Mother’s Day (last Sunday). It was a beautiful and sunny spring day and lots of people were out on the trails. The trail was busy with adults and kids walking and biking, dogs taking their owners for a walk and the occasional mandatory fitness buffs. I was surprised to find no other birders or photographers were at the nest site. Mom owl was in her nest, with her tail feathers sticking out. Dad owl was nowhere to be seen but the occasional hooting from inside the forest provided reassurance that he was around. I set up my gear and got to try out my new ultra-portable tripod, the JOBY GorillaPod 3K Video PRO with the Nikon P1000. As my mode of transport was my bike I did not want to pack the full sized tripod. The GorrillaPod performed commendable and had no trouble managing the hefty P1000. Of course a lone photographer with a camera pointed skyward attracts attention and it was not long before I had quite a gathering of spectators squinting against the bright sky trying to figure out what I was photographing. Everyone gets super happy and impressed when they are told about the nest with Great Horned Owl mom and her chicks. Owl mom seemed to be sleeping until an overly excited dog came running down the trail, barking and yapping like its life depended on it. Immediately a big yellow eye appeared in the nest scanning the horizon watchfully. She owl did not move a feather but her ever watchful eye was keeping close tabs on our activities below. I did not see the chicks that day, but I spend a long time at the nest taking photos, watching for the dad (which I never spotted, only heard) and talking to people about the owl family. Today’s photo was shoot through the emerging foliage. Your can see a few fuzzy green blobs of leaves bursting out after a long winter.
The secret is out, someone saw one of the Great Horned Owl chicks peaking out of the nest the other day. I am obviously talking about Edmonton’s own celebrity owl family down in the Whitemud Ravine. Last time I was down there, four days ago, mom owl was still in her cavity. I did not see any chicks but mom was peaking out of the nest and she seemed to be “higher up” in the nest, perhaps indicating that there are growing chicks below her. While this is exciting news, I am a bit concerned about the well-being of this celebrity family. Just like any celebrity family, they are under close scrutiny of the public with eager paparazzi nature photographers and birders watching their every move. There always seems to be photographers at the nest. To anyone regularly trafficking the trail it would be completely obvious that there is something interesting hiding in the trees. So far, everyone seems to be mindful and considerate of the feathered family, but it only takes one bad apple to cause irreparable harm. There are good reasons why eBird does not allow the publication of the exact location of owl nests. Owls are vulnerable to disturbances not just from humans but also from other birds. For example, owls are commonly harassed by other birds. If other birds, such as crows, ravens and other raptors, get alerted to the presence of the owls they could start harassing them or even prey on the young. Perhaps one could view all the nature loving photographers and birders as standing on guard around the family, making sure they are not bothered by anyone with ill intentions. I know that I will be back at the nest, carefully and mindfully observing the family from a distance.
The female Great Horned Owl in Whitemud Ravine is on her 29’th day sitting the eggs. We have been down checking in on her several times a week in the last little while and she is always in her nest. The male is always on guard in a nearby tree. In this picture you can see her feathery rear end and the back of her head with the two characteristic “horns”, which are actually tufts of feathers. The significance of the horns is not fully understood but it is believed they are used in social interactions. The owl couple is always very chilled when we are around (which is during the day) and one can always see Red Squirrels defiantly romping around in the understory right below the owls. I suspect the tables are turned once darkness falls. I have entertained the idea of heading down to the owls at night. The next full moon is on March 20. Let’s see if I can convince anyone else to joint me on a night time nature walk.
May the curiosity be with you. This is from “The Birds are Calling” blog (www.thebirdsarecalling). Copyright Mario Pineda.