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Hunting the Winged Tiger: the Great Horned Owl

Photos courtesy Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted March 2008
by Clay and Pat Sutton

The search image was one we have used repeatedly for many years on the vast salt marshes around Cape May and north along New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore. Scan to pick out the various Osprey nests, some natural, some man-made, some hidden, and some obvious – right out in the open.

We found a conspicuous nest, set up the spotting scope, and looked to see if it was occupied. Yes! A bird was on the nest, the first of the season.

But this search image was not the time-honored spring rite of finding the first returning Osprey on its venerable stick nest; instead what we saw was the unmistakable profile of a Great Horned Owl.

The slits of the squinting eyes were barely visible over the edge of the nest, but the ear tufts were a dead give away. The twin horns waved in the stiff northwest breeze. Equally unmistakable and almost felt rather than seen, she was glaring at us, not happy about our presence.

Great Horned Owls do not build their own nest, but use a large stick nest built and used the previous spring by a Red-tailed Hawk, Osprey, Great Blue Heron, or even a Bald Eagle.

The Osprey responsible for this nest was still on its winter quarters, probably on the Llanos in Venezuela or maybe along the Amazon. Upon its mid-March return, and finding its nest occupied, it will simply build another nest.

Early Nesters

Over much of North America, the Great Horned Owl is the earliest nesting bird. This particular nest was one of the earliest we’d ever found.

The bird was on eggs by January 21, or maybe even earlier – the 21st was the day we found it. Something else that was unusual about this nest was the location.

The Osprey nest was midway up a metal transmission line tower, as exposed to the elements as a nest could be. The nearest trees were hundreds of yards away (where the male owl was no doubt hidden and watching us). The wind had a fetch of over five miles across the frozen Delaware Bayshore marshes. The temperature was 26 degrees Fahrenheit, but it had been in the low teens the night before, and the owl was incubating. It is a scene that has oft been repeated here over many winters, but it doesn’t amaze us any less each time.

It is theorized that Great Horned Owls nest so early both to take advantage of the smorgasbord of winter-stressed wildlife and so that feeding their hungry young coincides with the first “crops” of spring – the first baby rabbits, prolific Muskrats and Rice Rats, squirrels that are even more active as winter caches are finally used up, even the first nests of Mourning Doves.

We’ve been amazed at the variety of prey items we have found below Great Horned Owl nests on the Jersey marshes, including the expected remains of opossums and skunks, a Mallard, a Red-shouldered Hawk, and even a Large-mouth Bass. Clapper Rails are frequent prey, and we once found a Great Horned Owl pellet during the fall migration that contained a Saw-whet Owl skull.

We have seen a Great Horned Owl stoop on a peenting American Woodcock in early spring, and a friend using a night-vision scope actually saw a Great Horned Owl carry off a nearly full grown kitten (another reason to keep your cat indoors).

"Winger Tiger"

The Great Horned Owl aptly deserves the moniker, the “Winged Tiger,” as pioneering owl researcher Lewis Wayne Walker called the bird in his classic The Book of Owls (although he certainly wasn’t the first to use this term). For many a chicken farmer we’re sure an adjective or two preceded the name.

But at no time is the title more descriptive than in early spring as this ultimate predator takes just about anything it can to feed rapidly growing, hungry young owlets.

Progress Report

It was exactly 27 days later that we again set up our scopes to check the transmission tower owl nest. Early winter had been mild, but February was brutally cold, well below average. Two days earlier there had been nearly 6 inches of snow, followed by pouring rain even though the thermometer read 25 degrees.

The entire landscape was coated in ice. Trees looked like ice sculptures. The entire marsh was frozen, as were the nearby fields where thousands of Snow Geese attempted to feed. Stressed ducks gathered at the few unfrozen stretches of the nearby river. It was a day that only predators such as Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls could relish.

Despite the fact that the temperature had dropped to 13 degrees the night before, the resolute owl still sat atop the exposed Osprey nest. It was sitting a little higher now.

Perhaps the eggs had hatched (incubation is 28-35 days). She had survived and, despite the conditions, ice-storm and all, she was no doubt thriving. We could only marvel at her perseverance.

More of her eyes were visible now, and perhaps as a result of the harsh conditions, we think her glare was even more malevolent, even more penetrating.

We wished her well, and hoped that the warming and lengthening days of March would be kind to her and her growing family. We saluted the lady tiger and slowly went our way on down the icy winter path.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and authors.

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