Great Horned Owlets at Four Weeks

March 14, 16, 2020 ~ Last weekend I joined other eager observers at Brazos Bend State Park to see the Great Horned Owl family. Photographers with tripods were being quiet and respectful of the birds, while families with boisterous children, yipping dogs and cell phone cameras were a little less conscious of the need for quiet and calm and distance… from the owls.

Experienced birders there said the owl family has nested in various trees near the entrance to the park for several years in a row… but this was my first time to see them, and I could not have been more excited!

Great Horned Owlets give double dose of cuteness
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/800 sec f/5.6 ISO 1000 at 500mm
(Click any photo to enlarge, then dismiss that window to come back here.)

The nestlings are perched high on a Live Oak branch a short distance inside the entrance to the park. There is no visible nest, just a slightly trampled area among the dried ferns on the saddle of the broad branch. One is clearly larger than the other; while the larger one could be a week or so older, or stronger when competing for food, it could also just be the female. Females are up to 20% larger than the males.

Wikipedia says the “nestling period” is 7 weeks, at which point the young birds will first attempt to fly. At age 10 – 12 weeks, they will be fully capable of flying. My very rough guess is that these chicks are about 3 – 4 weeks old, or roughly half-way to having feathers capable of flight.

Hawks and Caracaras will take young birds as prey, so it is good that these nestlings are already very aware of birds flying overhead. Several buzzards were circling, and each time they flew over, the nestlings would focus intently on them, turning their heads almost completely around to keep them in view. Owls cannot move their eyeballs to track objects, they must turn their entire head. Their neck has additional specially formed vertebra to permit this movement.

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Great Horned Owlets staying hyper-focused on birds flying above
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/640 sec f/5.6 ISO 1600 at 500mm

Fortunately, the owlets are safe, because their mom is perched about 20 feet away higher up in a neighboring Live Oak, keeping a careful eye out. Her feather pattern is the perfect camouflage; I repeatedly lost sight of her among the branches, because she blended in so well. In this photo, one of the tiny orange Spanish Moss expended seed pods blew in front of her face… and of course the angle of view is awkward… but what a thrilling moment, to find her great golden eye looking down at me!

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Great Horned Owl female keeping watch over her chicks
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/400 sec f/6.3 ISO 640 at 500mm

Just like puppies, owl nestlings have oversized feet when they are little, and the moments when they discover their feet are just as endearing. And like the adult owls, their feet are covered with soft hair-like feathers which muffle any wind sounds while flying. Their eyes in this photo appear dark black instead of shiny because their eyes are protected by their third nictating eyelid, which protects the eyes and keeps them moist.

We haz giant feet!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/640 sec f/5.6 ISO 1600 at 500mm

Here, just seconds later, they’ve opened their eyes fully. The birds use their talons to hold food, so cleaning up after eating is important. The photographers gathered below the chicks reported seeing the father bring a Coot chick for them to share the day before. Great Horned Owls prefer mammals first, then birds, then reptiles and insects, and according to several sources, are the only natural predator of skunks.

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Great Horned Owlets cleaning their talons
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/640 sec f/5.6 ISO 1600 at 500mm

Grooming each other and themselves is important to maintain health. While I was there the owlets spent about 10 minutes in one grooming session, each cleaning the other’s face. They were gentle, and there were ooh’s and ahh’s from the watching crowd as everyone commented that they were “kissing”.

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Hold still while I clean your face
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/500 sec f5.6 ISO 800 at 480mm

Here, the larger owlet used both beak and talon to give the smaller one a thorough going over.

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A satisfying head-scratch
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/500 sec f/5.6 ISO 800 480mm

The second day I visited was dark and drizzly. The female owl was sitting on a different branch, still and stoic, conserving energy. She gazed down at me, then slowly blinked, turned away and ignored me. I think she knew that I’m not suited to climbing trees, so I’m no threat to her young. You can tell that it was a much darker day by the diameter of her pupil, which has expanded to bring in extra light.

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Great Horned Owl female, checking me out
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/60 sec f/13 ISO 2500 at 500mm

I have no good excuse for the f/13 at which this was shot; instead of my default f/5.6, I should have used f/6.1, because I was under her, and her long body extended away from me would have required a little extra depth of field. I took more than 200 photos at this unfortunate f13 setting, which I’d originally selected to try to capture a shot of the two babies with their mother behind… and then I forgot to reset when I re-framed.

Hopefully I’ll be visiting every week for as long as the owls will tolerate us… and we will try to be on our best, quietest, calmest behavior!

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Observers enjoying the Great Horned Owls at Brazos Bend State Park
Phone photo

The nestlings were awake most of the time I was visiting them, but they settled for a short nap (probably not a “cat nap”), after this big yawn. The curly plant that looks like little brown hands is Resurrection Fern. Like the Spanish Moss, it is an epiphytic fern that grows on top of the spreading Live Oak branches. It is not parasitic; it simply uses the oak trees for support. Here it is dormant, but when the summer rain, heat and humidity arrive, it will become lush and green.

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Great Horned Owlet with big yawn!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/400 sec f/5.6 ISO 640 at 500mm

Hoping this finds y’all relaxing, and maybe taking advantage of “distancing” to enjoy the spacious outdoors, or to take your own little nap.


2 thoughts on “Great Horned Owlets at Four Weeks”

  1. Outstanding photos! Thanks for sharing. Do your hands ever shake when you’re really excited about capturing a subject? Sometimes I have trouble with that when I am flying my quad.


    1. Thanks, Jason! If my first 6 months of photos taken with my new rig are any indication, it wasn’t just my hands shaking, it was everything. Interestingly, I turned my Vibration Reduction OFF on my 200mm-500mm lens, and learned how to stabilize the lens by leaning into it… and I’ve decreased my vibration blur remarkably. My biggest problem is holding my breath when I get excited… until my head is fuzzy!


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