We first set foot on this island in March, 1995, and have returned, with very few exceptions, every year since. Not much changes, even when things change. And yet each year there are new discoveries. This year was no exception.
Our usual site--a flat clearing in the maritime forest not far from the dock and boardwalk to the lighthouse (and outhouse). This time the site deeper into the woods had grown over, and the picnic tables (three of them) all moved to our space. The site had been recently occupied--the pine needles flattened and pine cones brushed aside where tents had been, the remains of an illegal fire covered in sand and pine debris, someone's toilet paper left to disintegrate under a triumvirate of trees.
It had also been recently used by another sort of creature. The leavings of several skirmishes littered the ground--gull feathers, the remains of a young red-winged blackbird, wings torn at the shoulder, torso gone.
Later, on the path to the boardwalk, we found a large scat, full of bones, feathers, even fur. The intact skull of a mouse nearby. We wondered about this. No large predatory mammals inhabit this island (although the Park Ranger had told us they've seen a bear over the years swimming from island to island, he has not been around in a while, she said, and besides, we knew it wasn't bear scat). Here the raccoons dominate, along with mice and a small population of nutria (something we had discovered a few years back when one of these strange possum/groundhog things waddled through our campsite at dusk). Certainly there were no coyotes, whose scat we know often contains fur and bones.
Finally it occurred to us: an owl. We were camping in an owl's favored hunting ground. The scat not scat at all but the regurgitated plug of indigestible material. But as large as that pellet was--this must have been one big bird.
In the morning, as everyone was on the surf fishing and I was returning from the loo, Barrett happily chattering in my back carrier, I spotted another mess. A dead wren, more feathers, smaller pellets--all at the base of a tree. I looked up. The top of the tree had blown over in some storm long ago, and caught in the treetops across the path, creating a sheltered bit of space about 15 feet up. There, in the hollow, something was watching me. A gray fluff of feathers and two yellow eyes. An owlet. Two. Huddled in their nest, waiting for mama.
Later, walking the same path, a large shadow fell across me and I looked up in time to see a very large mama owl alight on a branch to observe as I passed. As long as I was near the nest she remained, not daring to approach and give away the location of her babes. She watched me with careful disinterest, until I moved along back to camp.
That night the wind blew fiercely and a storm pelted our tent with intermittent rain. I worried about the owlets. But the next morning the wind bore down on us as we packed up camp and hurried to get under shelter to wait for the ferry, which we weren't sure would even come in the rough waters. I worried over my own babes and forgot about the little owl family.
At home, I looked them up and determined they were Great Horned Owls (Bobo virginianus). Our mama owl had distinct tufts of feathers, like horns or ears. She was reddish brown and very large with yellow eyes. According to The Owl Pages, these birds can be 18-25 inches long, with wingspans of up to 60 inches. They are highly adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats, from dense forests to deserts, plains, and city parks. They eat whatever is available: other birds (including Great Blue Herons, red-tailed hawks, bitterns, ducks, gulls, and smaller birds), mice, rats, squirrels, raccoons, armadillos, rabbits, bats, muskrats, small cats or dogs, snakes, turtles, even young alligators. Six to ten hours after eating, they regurgitate the indigestible parts of their food (feathers, bones, fur) in pellets that can be as large as 3-4 inches long and 1.5 inches thick. Skulls as wide as 1.2 inches can be regurgitated whole.
According to The Owl Pages:
Nesting season is in January or February when the males and females hoot to each other. When close they bow to each other, with drooped wings. Mutual bill rubbing and preening also occurs. They do not build a nest of their own but utilize the nests of other birds such as the hawk, crow and heron. They may also use squirrel nests, hollows in trees, rocky caves, clumps of witches broom, abandoned buildings, or on artificial platforms. They are extremely aggressive when defending the nest and will continue to attack until the intruder is killed or driven off. Normally, two to four eggs are laid and incubated by the female only for 26-35 days. Young start roaming from the nest onto nearby branches at 6 to 7 weeks, when they are called "branchers", but cannot fly well until 9 to 10 weeks old. They are fed for another few weeks as they are slowly weaned. Families remain loosely associated during summer before young disperse in the autumn. Adults tend to remain near their breeding areas year-round while juveniles disperse widely, over 250 km (150 miles) in the autumn. Territories are maintained by the same pair for as many as 8 consecutive years, however, these Owls are solitary in nature, only staying with their mate during the nesting season. Average home ranges in various studies have been shown to be approximately 2.5 square kms (1 square mile).
For more info, photos, and sounds of Great Horned Owls (as well as other owls), please be sure to visit The Owl Pages.
Here is the very unclear photo I took with my limited telephoto lens. See if you can spot the little fella's eye looking at me.
Photo of Adult Great Horned Owl in Michigan by Janice Laurencelle and courtesy of The Owl Pages.
Photo of Great Horned owlet by Wesley J. Satterwhite (me) at Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina, March, 2008.