Great Horned Owlets at Six Weeks

March 28, 2020 ~ On March 24th, Fort Bend County Texas had not yet issued their “Stay at Home, Work Safe” edict. Brazos Bend State Park was open, though payment was on the honor system, as the cashier station was closed. I went out to visit the owlets. I felt like a doting Grandma: “My how you have grown! Look how far you can walk!”

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Larger owlet keeping an eye out above
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1600 sec f/5.6 ISO 1600 at 500mm
(Remember, you can click on any image to enlarge; dismiss that window to return here.)

Both owlets have moved from where I saw them two weeks ago. I first saw the larger, spread like a tabby cat along a Y in the oak branches, scanning the sky for hawks and eagles that might threaten. The richly patterned tawny brown and deep gray feathers are replacing his baby down.

He can stretch up taller than two weeks ago, and has far more facial definition than before.

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Great Horned Owlet, growing every day
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1250 sec f/5.6 ISO 1000 at 500mm

Then he stepped out along the branch, and I had to move to catch sight of him again.

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Larger owlet keeping a lookout
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/2500 sec f/5.6 ISO 1250 at 480mm

He walked about 10 feet away, to a spot on the branch clear of little plants. His wing feathers have grown longer, reaching back to dovetail (another nice word that birds have contributed to the English language) smoothly over his tail.

Both owlets are positioned to avoid offering a clear open view of their whole body and/or face. I don’t know if it is coincidence or instinct, but it is effective either way. So, you have to suffer through photos peering between leaves and branches, as I did 😊

The smaller owlet then took position at the Y in the oak branch, still cushioned with Spanish Moss and Resurrection Fern.

Here, he shows off his stocky legs, and his right foot, with textured toe pads.

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Smaller owlet standing strong
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 3200 at 500mm

Their mother continued her drowsy daytime vigil from a new branch, which bobbed slowly in the stiff breeze.

Her “horns” are not horns, and not ears. They are more like eyebrows, feathers softly fluffing in the wind, and are very expressive. As my camera clicked, she twitched these feathers showing that she heard me, even though she was watching another photographer. The owl’s ears are at the sides of her head, just like yours and mine, hidden under her feathers. In fact, they are situated just a few millimeters off center from one another, which gives her 3-dimensional hearing, useful for pinpointing the location of prey.

She tended to her grooming, giving me some interesting vantages.

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Great Horned Owl female rearranging her wing feathers
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1250 sec f/6.3 ISO ISO 3200 at 460mm

Unfortunately, I managed to focus on her thigh, and didn’t have the depth of field to reach her face, all scrunched up for cleaning. She was around 25 feet above me, so I only had 2 – 3 inches of depth, and it wasn’t quite enough for her long body.

Here she works on her talons, studiously cleaning her legs and fist.

Great Horned Owl mother taking a beauty moment
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/1600 sec f/6.3 ISO 3200 at 500mm

Did you notice that most of the photos of the young birds show them with their mouths open? I could see the feathers at their throats vibrating, but they were not hooting (I would love to hear that!). It was a hot humid day, and they were doing something called “gular fluttering”. Their fluttering throat muscles fan air rapidly in and out of their lungs, and the moving air cools them from the inside.

Just for comparison, here’s another owl at Brazos Bend State Park, photographed last winter. This is a Barred Owl. It was twilight when he swooped past, low and slow, and then wheeled around to land silently above me in the willow tree. I took a lot of shots but the breeze stirred the pesky willow branches into the wrong place nearly every time; I have just this one image, where his clear eye gazes out at the silly human, playing with a camera which cannot possibly equal his eyesight.

The Barred Owl weighs roughly half as much as the Great Horned Owl. It is the only owl with dark eyes; all the others, including the Great Horned Owl, have golden eyes. Both, however, have camouflage which is perfectly suited to their surroundings.

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November 2019, Barred Owl getting ready for a night-time hunt
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR
1/800 sec f/6.3 ISO 4000 at 500mm

The light just after the “golden hour” of sunset cast a warm glow over the bird highlighting his orange beak and yellow feet, both a contrast to the Great Horned Owl’s black beak and creamy feet.

Now I’m hunkered down at home, in the air conditioning, waiting for the Texas virus curves to flatten. It’s fun to imagine these wonderful birds enjoying the blissful quiet and the clean air that now extends across the upper Gulf Coast area, as most of us stay home for a couple of weeks.

2 thoughts on “Great Horned Owlets at Six Weeks”

  1. They have the park to themselves right now. I wonder if they’re a little bored without the strange camera lady to watch. I enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing.


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