November 2013: The Great Horned Owl
With its arching brow and ‘old-man’ stare, I think the Great Horned Owl is the perfect personification of the ‘wise old owl.’ Other large Alberta owls, like Great Gray and Snowy Owls, seem to have an expression of surprise mixed with curiosity. The Great Horned Owl , on the hand, has a piercing stare that exudes an innate knowledge of all that is. The Great Horned Owl is the most common of all Alberta owls, and also holds the title of Alberta’s provincial bird.
Being night owls, they are not easy to spot in the day because they remain well hidden and camouflaged. If you’re lucky, you might see a Great Horned Owl roosting in a tree in one of Calgary’s parks. If you are really lucky, you might find one in an old building or barn window in the prairies – a coveted position for birders and wildlife photographers! I’ve been fortunate enough to run across this scene a few times in my touring around, but my favorite and best pictures are from this past November.
On November 16, 2013 I was driving down to Lethbridge and scanning the windows of barns/old buildings as usual. An owl figure landed in my sight line in a location that I always check because I had seen one there before. I pulled over and was able to get close enough to snap some closeups. I was pretty happy with the scene – the light snow floating in the foreground added to the ominous quality of the dark background. When I got home, the thought occurred that I should check when I saw the Owl in that window before. I was surprised to discover it was almost exactly a year ago, on November 11, 2012. I don’t know if it was the same owl – the 2012 Owl was a little lighter, but could have been a juvenile at the time. Great Horned Owls (and Owls in general) are territorial – they tend to return to the same location year after year, at least to nest and raise their young. I think November would be too early for nesting, so I’m not sure if or why a Great Horned Owl would favor a specific barn at only a certain time of the year. I just found it interesting that I’ve only see an Owl there the two times, but exactly a year apart. I go to Lethbridge quite often and always check this spot. It could have been a coincidence, but I was certainly happy to see it – we’ll see what happens in November 2014.
I also had the pleasure of getting a close up view of a Great Horned Owl at Frank Lake in 2011. I was still fairly new to birding/nature photography at the time, so it was particularly exciting. Actually, this was my very first visit to the birding hot-spot, just East of High River. I arrived early in the morning, just as the sun was rising, and was greeted by a cacophony of bird songs. I walked out to the blind to get a better look at the water, and there was the Great Horned Owl sitting in the window sill. Perhaps this was a good vantage point to scan for small rodents in the shallow water amoung reeds? It did not fly immediately, but turned its head and glared at me in what I can only assume was annoyance. I think both me and the owl were equally as shocked. I had heard Frank Lake is a great spot for waterfowl and shorebirds, but the last thing I was expecting to find in the blind was as Great Horned Owl. Needless to say, the location immediately became one of my favorite wildlife-viewing spots.
There are a few areas in Calgary parks that Great Horned Owls nest each year, and it’s always a treat to be able to see the owlets both before and after they leave the nest (fledge). The first Owlet I had ever seen was in 2011 in Fish Creek Park. There were two fledgelings initially. I was out for an evening walk and spotted them sitting at the base of a tree. The light was poor, so I returned the next day and was happy to find one of them still there in better light. A Flickr friend, Bob Pruner of Cardston, AB shared a really cute/funny video that he captured of three fledgelings. In fact, the video earned him a win on America’s Funniest Home Videos. I highly recommend giving it a watch – it’s less than a minute long.
Great Horned Owl Tips
As already mentioned, these owls are very common and widespread throughout Alberta and beyond. If you see an owl in a city park, there’s a good chance it is a Great Horned. The coloration can vary from the lighter white seen in the images here to a darker brown. The horns look like the ears, but they are actually just tufts of feathers. Long-eared Owls are the closest counter parts to Great Horned Owls look-wise, but they are darker and about half the size, with longer and more pronounced ear tufts. I have yet to see a Long-Eared Owl in the wild – hopefully someday soon.
That is it for this post. Stay tuned for my final Year in Review post, December 2013 – Alberta’s Small Owls: Northern Pymgy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Northern Saw-whet.