The wind had picked up and it was starting to rain. I had walked up and down the levee in the bosque near the Albuquerque Visitor’s Center looking for where the Great Horned Owl was nesting. I kept checking the email from my friend Joe who had sent me a Google Earth map and had taken photos of landmarks near the nest. Finally I spotted it and began to walk towards it.
The tree was swaying in the wind and the female was scrunched down low in the nest; only her wide tail protruded over the edge of the nest. It was the first time I had seen an owl nesting in this position.
Normally the female is sitting up in the nest, usually napping, like the one I photographed in the same area a couple of years ago.
I quickly scanned the nearby trees trying to spot where the male was roosting, but couldn’t spot him. While I sometimes can spot them on a branch in a nearby tree,
roosting owls are often so camouflaged that they are almost impossible to see. I almost didn’t see the male roosting adjacent to the nest in another part of the bosque.
Fearful that the trees might begin to self-prune, as cottonwoods are wont to do in the wind, I scurried back to the safety of the levee.
Observing Great Horned Owls as they nest has become an annual tradition. In the bosque they begin nesting between the first week of February and the middle of the month and seek out an existing nest, normally one occupied by a Cooer’s Hawk the prior year. Today as I walked along the levee I watched what appeared to be an agitated Cooper’s Hawk kekking as it flew back and forth over the area in the bosque where I finally located the occupied nest.
While female Copper’s Hawks begin to converge on their nesting territories in February, the males don’t arrive until March, so the earlier-nesting owls that don’t build their own nests, have first pick of an existing nest.
In addition to large trees, they nest on old raven’s nests on cliffs, such as in the Petroglyphs, the foothills of the Sandias or steep canyons along the Rio Grande and other rivers in New Mexico. The resident Great Horned Owl often nests in one of the niches of the convento ruins at the Quarai site of the Salinas National Monument just north of Mountainair.
A search of images on the Internet showed this species of owl nesting in such strange locations, e.g. an old wash tub wired between the trucks of two trees, a laundry basket affixed to a platform, and between transformers on a power pole.
People are always surprised to learn that Great Horned Owls are found in the city, such as this nest that was at the Albuquerque Academy a couple of years ago.
The pair, which maintain their general territory throughout the year, begins to roost near the area where they plan to nest about a month prior to settling into the actual nest. During this time the male often hoots at night to declare its territory.
The female remains on the nest for the entire 30 – 37 day incubation period and the first two weeks of brooding, while her mate delivers food to her. Since this happens at night, I have not had the opportunity to observe this.
It is fun to return to the nests when the chicks are big enough to venture out from beneath the brooding female.
Occasionally, an owlet will be too adventuresome and topple out of the nest, like this one did at the Quarai ruins – where fortunately, the rangers took care to see that it was protected from predators.
Albuquerque’s Great Horned Owls will keep my attention, until the Cooper’s Hawks begin to nest.