Great Horned…On Watch?

by Carl Strang

For over a decade, now, one of my February rituals is to search for the great horned owl nest on whichever forest preserve I am stationed. It started at Willowbrook in 1999 when I saw a single feather tuft in an old willow cavity that gave away the incubating bird. The search in later years shifted to Fullersburg Woods, a much larger preserve but not so large as to contain more than one pair. Great horneds are big enough, and sufficiently constrained in their choices (either a large tree cavity or a previous year’s hawk nest), that with some experience and knowledge of the area one usually can find the local nest.

In recent years I have followed the tragic story of the pair at Mayslake Forest Preserve. The first winter I was there, they nested in a large cavity in a dead willow. A March storm snapped off the tree at the nest cavity, killing the young. The next winter they either nested off preserve or skipped a year. In any case there were no youngsters screeching their feed-me calls that summer. Last year they tried a red-tailed hawk nest, starting incubation just a few days before the “snowmageddon” blizzard that apparently drove the female off the nest and killed the eggs, for they did not hatch.

This year was not promising. I heard the owls duetting in October, but the only sign of them on the preserve after that was a killed duck in December. Nevertheless, I searched. And one day last week, I saw an owl.

The bird looked small, like a male.

He was perched not far from two tree cavities that might be big enough to hold a nest. The closest, in fact, I knew had been a raccoon den a couple springs before. The problem is that both cavities are too deep to look into. I will have to hope that, if one contains a nest, the growing young will force the brooding mother high enough for me to see one of those telltale feather tufts. In any case, I hope that this year they succeed. It would be nice to have some young owls to watch this summer.

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