By Alan Krakauer
I wish this was a normal spring and summer. However, if I had to pick one up-side to being forced to bird so close to home this year, it would be getting to know my local Great Horned Owls a little better. Of all the feathered denizens of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, the owls are one of my favorites to run into.
The story of the nest itself comes with a bit of mystery. Through the beginning of March, I watched a pair of Common Ravens attending a large sloppy pile of sticks high in a Monterey pine tree next to the parking lot. I might see the tail of one raven jutting over the edge of the nest, while its mate would perch watchfully in a nearby eucalyptus or oak. Then the virus hit. We adjusted to the new Covid-19 restrictions, and for a few weeks my visits grew infrequent.
In mid-April I looked again and the nest now appeared to be owned by a Great Horned Owl! Did the ravens abandon first and then the owls move in? Was this more of an eviction situation? Not to worry– the ravens nested somewhere else. By June, the raven parents were shepherding at least one noisy baby raven around the park entrance.
Without a way to peer into the owl nest, I couldn’t see any eggs or small chicks. Was this even a nesting attempt, or just a convenient spot for an adult owl to sleep? I knew Great Horned Owls tended to be one of the first birds to start breeding in our area, plus online birding groups were already saturated with photos of fluffy owlets on branches. Shouldn’t I be seeing something? The wait for cute baby owls was excruciating, and I was starting to get worried there was something wrong with the nest. What was going on up there?
It took almost a month, but I finally saw one pale, unsteady, poorly feathered wing flapping above the lip of the nest. A little later than I expected, but we were still on track. Yes, we were in business! We’ve got an owlet! On my next visit I could see a pair of white round heads in the nest. Subsequent visits seemed to confirm two owlets.
Unbelievably, my bounty of owlets continued! On a hike deeper into the park I heard a screech from high in a dense row of Cypress that I recognized as a young, hungry Great Horned Owl fledgling. A moment of scanning the trees, and one, two, three owlets! I never saw the nest, but these were older than the first set and already branching out. On this first visit I saw one of the parents gift half a rat to an owlet for breakfast. I’ll stick with my granola bar, thanks.
I returned a few times over the next month to observe and photograph both owl families.
Especially when watching the nest in the parking lot, this led to other park visitors coming over to see what we were observing. Sadly, with the social distancing imposed by the virus, I wasn’t able to share my binoculars or offer views through my camera. Thankfully everyone was able to easily find the large birds on their own, particularly once the owlets started sitting near the rim of the nest. Though the nest wasn’t perfect for photography, otherwise I couldn’t ask for a better nest location. The owls were easy to point out to people while also sitting so high off the ground that they did not appear to be bothered by the hustle and bustle of a crowded parking lot.
Back at home, we could immerse ourselves in the photos of fat downy chicks with glowing yellow eyes. But as much joy as these images were bringing us, I was hesitant to share many of them on social media. Owls are beautiful and captivating subjects, and I know from my experience selling local wildlife photographs that people connect to them. Yet, how much love is too much?
This spring I had people recount their experiences with other nests, stories that often that culminated in instructions like “go until you see all the people with cameras.” Facebook birding groups were flooded with posts about owls, photo after photo of mesmerizing gold eyes staring straight into the camera. Some of the groups have placed restrictions on shots from certain locations. The human need for online admiration was causing harm to the birds in the real world.
How did my experiences fit into this over-exuberance? With some reflection on my interaction with the owl families this year, I actually felt a lot better a lot about things. Until I had my own owls to commune with, seeing other photographers’ full frame photos of owl faces brought to mind owls reacting with anger or distress to intrusion. And yet, with a little cropping of my photos, I was capturing similar scenes in what I was sure was a responsible manner. Yes, one of the young owlets might stare at me, but this was not due to my disruption. I was way down in a busy parking lot– barely a drop in the bucket of their sensory world. I realized these are curious creatures, stuck on a nest all day with nothing to do but watch the world. And sleep. The owls did a lot of sleeping, something that’s not as often captured in photos.
Making this check on my outdoor ethics helped me enjoy my time with the owls that much more. My hope is that the vast majority of bird photographers are good actors, following guidelines from Audubon or North American Nature Photography Association. And I think it’s a good idea for all of us, from time to time, to pause and assess what, how, and why we are out there observing.
About Alan: Alan is a biologist living in California. He is broadly interested in evolution, ecology, and natural history. Most of hid research has focused on the behavioral ecology of birds. To learn more about Alan’s life and work, you can go to his website. Alan also has a bird photography website, complete with his lovely photographs.