Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Pirates of the Marsh: Great Horned Owl

The pirate of the salt marsh sits confidently in her nest, a nest that last year belonged to a pair of osprey. Atop the manmade nesting box, the Great Horned Owl nestles beside her fledgling. From her elevated vantage, she can over-see her territory and defend it from marauders.

Scott Roxbrough, manager of The Audubon Shop in Madison, points out that it is a very rare occurrence for owls to nest in an osprey box. Osprey nests, especially manmade nesting boxes, are typically in exposed areas and offer little natural protection for the birds. Roxbrough does not know of another instance in CT when owls have selected an osprey box for their nesting site.

Gusts of wind bend the stout ear tufts of the adult owl, and ruffle the downy buff plumage of the juvenile. Groups of raucous crows squawk from their perch in nearby trees. Periodically, one of the black buccaneers takes to flight, and makes a strafing run at the nest. As the crow nears the owl’s self declared no-fly zone, the brilliant yellow ringed eyes of the nocturnal hunter open, and begin tracking the inbound predator.

The crow fails to change course, and the adult owl prepares to defend her home. She jumps to the outer edge of the nest, while her young takes refuge in the center. Elongating her body, and puffing her body feathers, the 22 inch tall parent transforms from a sleeping mother to a ruthless warrior. The owl opens her formidable beak and extends the sharp talons on one leg in an attack posture. The crow wisely chooses to turn away.

Resting comfortably once again, the owl pair resumes its mid-day nap.

Great Horned Owls do not build nests of their own, but rather they pirate nests previously built by Red-tail Hawks, crows and herons. They also nest in hollow trees, abandoned buildings and sometimes squirrel nests. The female owl lays one to three eggs, which she incubates for roughly thirty days. One adult will stay with the babies for the next six to seven weeks, as the young begin to grow their flight feathers.

When the nest becomes too crowded, the juveniles will jump out, sometimes with a little encouragement from the adult, and then seek cover in a tree. This behavior is known as “branching” or “limbing out.” The maturing birds cannot fly at his point, and are still dependant on their parents for food. Roxbrough makes note that this nesting location will make the branching process particularly interesting, because typically an owl’s nest is already in a tree. This youngster will have the challenge of dropping to the ground, and then traversing the salt marsh, to reach the safety of nearby trees. Nests are abandoned once the young leave.

Fledglings begin to fly around 9-10 weeks of age, but the adults take care of the young for several more weeks. Over the summer, the juveniles become self-sufficient and proficient hunters. The young leave the home range of their parents in search of their own territory in the fall.

Roxbrough mentioned that in addition to the Great Horned Owl, Barred Owls and Eastern Screech Owls, also nest along the shoreline. He noted that owl populations appear healthy, and that if you know where to search and what signs to look for, you should be able to find other nesting birds.

If you are interested in learning more about birding opportunities along the shoreline, stop by The Audubon Shop in Madison, or give them a call at: 203-245-9056.