We lived in a tiny cabin on the grounds of a former summer youth camp for a few years. Around the cabin was a forest of mixed hardwoods and pines, a big meadow and a modest pond. We were short on cash, but the big property provided an abundance of free enjoyment.
Throughout one memorable day, the late summer sun had been fixed in a brilliant sapphire sky. We had seen white-tailed deer and Canada geese in the meadow, frogs and a giant snapping turtle at the pond, and a host of songbirds, including an American redstart. On the way back to the cabin we crossed paths with an opossum that comically fell over playing dead as we approached.
Little did we realize that the best part of the day was still to come.
We couldn’t get enough of the wonderful weather and decided to have a supper of sandwiches at the picnic table next to the cabin. Just-picked organic beefsteak tomatoes, fresh basil and creamy mozzarella with a slather of mayo were layered between thickly cut slices of homemade bread. We enjoyed the simple dinner as if we were dining in a five-star restaurant.
By 10 p.m. we were sound asleep, only to be awakened by a deep, resonating hoot. We listened for the owl again. This time it was clearer, a series of six to eight hoots, with the second and third notes shorter and more rapid. It also sounded like it was just outside the cabin.
We quickly tugged on some clothes and shoes and headed out the door with binoculars in hand. This was unmistakably a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), and with some luck we would be able to see as well as hear him.
The great horned owl is aptly named. The “horns” are large ear tufts that stick up directly from atop the resting bird’s head. In flight, the tufts are tucked back against the head, giving the flying bird a flat, compact head profile. With a wingspan of more than 4 feet and a weight of 3 pounds, these birds are among the largest avian species in North America.
The bird we heard was a male, identifiable by his deep-throated hoot. The female has a higher pitched and less resonant voice. Males and females are feathered with a series of cryptic browns, blacks and whites covering the entire bird. They have a white throat patch and distinctive barring across their torsos. Their wings are broad as well as long. Large yellow eyes are fixed inside a tawny facial disk, which is rimmed in black. The legs are heavily feathered. Overall, females tend to be darker and heavier than males.
Except for the northernmost latitudes, great horned owls can be found all across North America and large parts of South America. They are resident and sedentary. As their varied terrain suggests, great horned owls have adapted to a wide variety of foods. They are fearsome hunters that will take animals bigger than themselves, e.g., skunks and geese, as well as smaller prey including voles, field mice, frogs and insects.
Typically, a hunting owl will sit on a tree limb or post and watch for movement in the grass. When the bird spots its prey, it flies on silent wings to attack its victim with deadly talons.
After the bird has gotten its fill for the night, it finds a favorite overnight perch. Hours later it regurgitates “owl pellets,” hard balls of inedible matter such as matted feathers and bones. Many a child has found these balls in the woods and dissected them with fingers and sticks.
Great horned owls are early nesters. They usually select an old red-tailed hawk nest or other convenient abandoned nest or cavity. The first eggs in the Chesapeake region are laid in January. After a monthlong gestation period, the mother will produce a brood of two to three eggs. In a little more than a month, the owlets can fly, and by 10 weeks they are fully independent.
The full moon was well up in the night sky as we continued our quiet pursuit of the owl. His regular hooting led us directly to his tree. High up in a pine, we could see his profile. We continued walking past his perch until we could get the moonlight directly on the bird. We were delighted by the view, and then startled when we heard a female return his call. She was in the same tree, just a few branches away.
We headed back to our little cabin. The interactions among forest, meadow and pond provided a richness of experience. We hadn’t spent a dollar, but the day had lifted our spirits and reinforced a life lesson about nature’s priceless beauty and abundance.
Mike Burke, an amateur naturalist, lives in Cheverly, MD.