Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Great Horned Owl in an Osprey Nest

One of the highlights of a short visit to Kiawah Island last week was finding a female Great Horned Owl sitting in a former Osprey nest in a tall pine, with the smaller male perched among the shadows of the pine branches not far away.

The nest overlooks an open expanse of marsh grass and ponds, and although we didn’t know it at the time, the owls were also seen there almost a month ago, by participants in a bird count organized by the Kiawah Island Nature Program. The nest is large and easy to see, constructed mostly of large sticks, with debris from palm trees, some Spanish moss, and one long tangled strand of bright orange string.

The female’s head, with its two prominent ears, stuck up from the nest, and through a scope, when she swiveled her head around in our direction, we could see her orange face and large, half-lidded yellow eyes. A strong wind ruffled the feathers of her head. The feathers on her upper back gleamed gray and dark brown in the sunlight, and on her breast, the barred brown plumage looked fluffed and spread out.

While we were there, four Ospreys soared and called over and over again around the same area, though they did not approach the nest or its tree. It seems likely that the nest originally belonged to one of these pairs, and we wondered what they would do, now that it’s been taken over by the owls. After getting back home, I looked this up, and learned that Great Horned Owls not only often take over nests of other raptors – they do not build nests of their own – but also that they are considered serious predators of Ospreys, often taking fledglings and even the adults.

When a Great Horned Owl takes over an Osprey nest, this usually disrupts the Osprey’s breeding season. Since this nest has been observed by residents of the island, I’m hoping someone will keep up with what happens and whether or not this pair of Ospreys will find another nesting spot.

At the time, I was simply spellbound, standing and watching the Great Horned Owl in such full view in the middle of a clear, sunny day, with the quiet sweep of brown marsh grass all around, the Ospreys flying and calling overhead, and herons, egrets and pied-billed grebes feeding in the ponds. The Owl looked stolid and strong and moved very little, as if nothing could perturb her, so still at times she looked like a piece of a log, only turning her head now and then – and showing a most remarkable, hypnotic face.


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