By Bill Lawyer
There’s a small but hardy crew of short-cutters, strollers, joggers, and dog walkers that include the path between the Purdy Cemetery and the Oakland Avenue Bridge in their daily routine. Over the past week, they have been treated to quite a show if they travel that way around 4:30 in the afternoon.
It wasn’t that long ago that it was dark by that time. But as the days have been getting longer, people can still see what’s going on. And what a sight it has been to see. Up in the trees lining the path two Great Horned Owls have been perched about 25 feet or more high — close enough to get a fairly detailed view.
For the most part, they are very stationary, sometimes perched on the same branch; other times they are on nearby branches.
On one occasion, one of the owls suddenly flew out of the woods, across the baseball field, and then into the woods to the north.
Great Horned Owls are probably one of the most studied species of owl in the country. That’s no doubt, in part at least, because they are much larger than most species of owl. They range from 18 to 24 inches long, with the females being slightly longer than the males. They weigh from 2 to 5 pounds. “Our” owls were at the larger end of this range.
Over the years I have heard the hooting of Great Horned Owls, particularly in the winter months, when the nights are longer and the mating season has begun — from December through February. Great Horned Owls are the true epitome of a nocturnal animal. Their eyes are well adapted for receiving any available light and they have an enhanced ability to hear even the softest sounds of a potential prey.
The first time I saw the two owls, it wasn’t because I noticed them on my own. A crow had been cawing loudly, so I looked up to see what was going on. And there they were.
At first it looked like two clumps of leaves wedged between the branch and trunk of the tree — it reminded me of the nests that squirrels make, known as drays.
But then one of the clumps moved.
The owl’s feathers are truly camouflaged, so that while they are sitting still it’s almost impossible to see them as dusk approaches. As I watched, the crow seemed to give up and flew away.
The next afternoon I encouraged my granddaughter to come with me, as I said she would see a fun surprise. Of course, I wasn’t sure they’d still be there, but I thought it was worth a try. And when we got there, success!
Nearly everyone on the planet seems to know about the owl in the Harry Potter stories, but I have to admit that I’ve never read the books or watched the movies. But in my mind, finding two large owls with feathers that look like horns was as exciting as any fictional, magic owls.
And the other fascinating thing we were able to see was the owls’ ability to pivot their heads 270 degrees, so that they can really pick up sounds coming from nearly all directions.
While “our” owls seem beautiful and almost docile, when they get into their hunting mode it’s an entirely different story. They perch high in a tree on a dark night, and when they spot or hear their prey they dive straight down. Their talons give them the ability to catch and crush their prey before the rats, voles, and other critters know what hit them.
Unfortunately, there was no way I could get a good photo of our owls at rest or in the air. So if you want to see what the excitement is all about, you’ll have to go to the path and see for yourself.
Photo of Great Horned Owl at the Marshlands Conservancy courtesy of William J. Hall Wildlife Photography