Owl Obsession

It should be obvious by now, but I seem to have a bit of an obsession with finding and watching nesting Great Horned Owls. Owls had long been on my wish list for seeing in the wild, but it was always a quite rare event for me to ever see one. My first Great Horned Owl sighting was in a dry wash in nearby Elena Gallegos Open Space way back in 2005 and so unusual for me that I had to ask for help in identifying it. I still haven’t seen one there since, but after retiring in 2011 and getting out birding more seriously and more often have located a number of active nests and learned a bit about their behavior. It starts for me early in the year, looking for abandoned hawk nests among the leafless trees that I’ll return to check around mid-February. I’ve also learned they’ll regularly use the same nest for several years or move to another spot close by. Once the female settles in to incubate those eggs, she seems to stay hunkered way down for a bit more than a month and then tends to sit up higher when the eggs hatch and little ones quickly grow up. For the next couple of months, the little ones continue to grow, start climbing out of the nest, then practice flying to nearby branches, until one day they all just disappear into the woods almost never to be seen until early the next year.

So far this year, I’m now checking in on eight nests around town.  The first one this year for me was February 12 in the bosque between Rio Grande Nature Center and Campbell Road. They’re using the same nest as last year, and had just been reported on eBird the day before – I hadn’t seen anybody home a few days earlier so they must have just started nesting. Every time I’ve been this year, the male has been spotted lower down and east of the nest maybe 30 yards away. Here’s a picture of the female taken yesterday.

Great Horned Owl – Rio Grande Nature Center

A friend had told me about a nesting pair in an unusual urban location right in the middle of one of our major shopping districts, in ponderosa pines around the City Place office building. They, too, seem to be using the same location as last year.  I’ve yet to see the actual nest or the female, but can usually spot the very well-hidden male on my visits.

Great Horned Owl -City Place

Another friend told me about the nest at Albuquerque Academy this year. Apparently, the same pair has been nesting on the property for years and I’ve usually seen them since 2012. For the last three or four years, they’ve become celebrated for nesting in an open spot low in a ponderosa near the busy center of campus. This year, however, they’ve chosen a quieter and much more well-hidden spot. It’s been possible to just make out the female in her nest way at the top of their new ponderosa, and interesting to see the male a little more obviously in the same tree but doing his best to camouflage his presence.

Great Horned Owl – Albuquerque Academy

A few days later, I checked in on the strange pair that’s nested at Piedras Marcadas Dam last year. Strange because they usually start nesting later than others, one year hatched their little ones much later, and when I do see the male, it often will fly off rather than sitting there motionless (but always looking right at you!) as they usually do. This year, I’ve seen the pair of them on several occasions in the same tree they nested in last year, quite close to the nest but not yet nesting. This picture from yesterday shows them thinking about nesting and I didn’t get too close or stay long so the male didn’t fly off.

Great Horned Owl – Piedras Marcadas

Last week when I stopped by, they were lower in the tree and he did take off before I spotted him; the female, meanwhile, stayed put and played that same hiding game as the guy at Albuquerque Academy, breaking up its outline as they often will by merging with some concealing branches or leaves.

Great Horned Owl – Piedras Marcadas

Following up on a recent eBird report, I finally managed to spot a nest in Corrales that I suspect was also used last year but that I’d hadn’t seen back then. Way, way high in a tree, this one was pretty tough to see or photograph, and I didn’t spot the male anywhere in the area.

Great Horned Owl – Corrales

Later that same day, I made probably my third visit this year around Pueblo Montano and the Bosque School, where they’ve usually had a nesting pair somewhere in the area but that I’ve missed finding some years.  I would spot six porcupines and a good number of abandoned hawk nests there, but had just about given up again when high up and not too far from the trail winding through the bosque one of those hawk nests had an owl! It’s always fun to be the first to spot and report on an active nest. I looked, but didn’t see the male anywhere nearby.

Great Horned Owl – Pueblo Montano

Yesterday following the excellent directions of another friend, two more nests got added to my list for this year. The first one, in Roosevelt Park near the university, was one that nested in the same spot as last year, but that I also hadn’t managed to spot then.  The male was quite easy to see and stood out against the open sky a little below the nest.

Great Horned Owl – Roosevelt Park

The female was also visible in the nest, but low in the nest and difficult to photograph. Then it was over to the National Hispanic Cultural Center where another active nest had been seen in the area. Following my directions, I easily spotted a huge old hawk nest about where the owl should be but just couldn’t see anybody home. Since I knew it had to be close, I then looked around some more to no avail and checked lower in the general vicinity without spotting  the male (no surprise; they can be quite close to a nest but extremely well-hidden). Just about to give up, it struck me that a bunch of crows seemed to be making a lot of noise right around where I’d been looking. In the winter, it’s not unusual to have rather large groups of crows hanging around and calling like that, but birds will often harass any predatory owl that they find. Directing my attention to all that commotion, sure enough, there was a pretty obvious nest high up in a tree near the first old nest I’d seen and a female owl popped up to stare at the attacking crows, but otherwise seemed to ignore them. (I’d see something like this a couple of times in the past at Piedras Marcadas when a Cooper’s Hawk hassled the owls that had taken over their old nest.)

Great Horned Owl – NHCC

In other news, it was a treat this past weekend seeing that our State butterfly, the Sandia Hairstreak, is flying again kicking off this year’s butterfly season. As we’ve seen the last few years, they first seem to appear the first few days of March when the weather warms up just enough. Last Friday, we had a couple of them at Copper Trailhead and then on Saturday a couple more in Embudito Canyon.

Sandia Hairstreak (Callophrys mcfarlandi)

Liked this picture of a Crissal Thrasher in Embudito, too, showing all the field marks (more curved bill, dark stripes on the throat, and chestnut undertail coverts) that distinguish it from the more common Curve-billed Thrashers I usually see there.

Crissal Thrasher

There should still be a few nesting owls around that I hope to track down in the next few weeks while the leaves haven’t yet appeared. They do seem to use the same or nearby locations over the years, but sometimes either something happens to the owls, their nesting options disappear, or maybe they just move on and I won’t see one there anymore. I also wonder where all the young ones go – do they stay in the same vicinity or fly off to some new territory? Should start seeing a few more butterfly species now that the days are getting longer and warmer.





About joeschelling

Birding, butterflies, nature photography, and travel blog from right here in Albuquerque New Mexico.
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