Sunday, August 20, 2006

 
FIERCE ENCOUNTER ON HILLTOP

WILDLIFE NEAR MY HOME

Many of my wildlife sightings here in the Hill Country have taken place on a hill near my home that has a thick cedar forest just to the right of a turn in the road. The favorite gathering place for the local deer herd is a feeding station there. It’s rare for me not to have a “deer” experience when I climb that hill, regardless of the time of day. I’ve written about the hungry deer several times and also shared my delight in observing the playful antics of two foxes. I’m still learning how to differentiate the many bird species there. And often from that height I can spot the mallards and domestic ducks that live in our small private lake in the small valley down below.

SURPRISED BY A GREAT HORNED OWL

One morning recently I was thinking that there couldn’t be anything new to discover at that spot when I was greatly surprised by the flyby of what could only be a Great Horned Owl, since it is the only large owl with ear tufts. I’ve never seen one in flight before or up close. Just as I was wondering if I had imagined him, he soared by again, circling me. I was delighted and a little bit scared as he was large, powerful and fierce looking, with his ear tufts that looked like horns and his bright yellow eyes fixed on me. Surely he wasn’t considering me for breakfast, was he?

GREAT HORNED FACTS

My new companion had dramatic coloring with well-defined markings. He was rusty brown, light gold and brown, with a white throat patch, with cross-barred under parts and dark bars on his extended tail. His wingspan looked to be between 4-1/2 to 5 feet and I would say he was about 3 feet in length.

After he had a good look at me and I at him, he disappeared in the thicket and I came home and did some research to verify what I saw and learn more about him. My research revealed that this must be a mature specimen because, although the young are similar in coloration to the adults, their barring and dark markings are not as crisp and defined and the ear tufts are smaller or not apparent.

I regret that I did not get to hear its call, which I understand is a distinctive “hoot” and is a way to distinguish males from females. The males usually give four to five hoots while females give six to eight hoots in a lower pitch. I also learned that the Great Horned Owl is very adaptable and inhabits every type of terrain in North America from sea level to 11,000-ft. elevation. A preferred habitat would include mature woods that offer maximum roosting concealment and water near open habitats for hunting.

NEW FEAR FOR RESIDENT WILDLIFE

After reading about how great the Great Horned Owl’s predator skills are, I was worried about the safety of the small animals that I have come to enjoy in and around our small private lake. When I spied the foxes a few weeks ago, my first thought was that they were a threat to the few ducks that reside here. Now I was worried about the foxes, as well as the ducks and the lone Great Blue Heron in the next article down. This owl is known as an opportunistic forager that often chooses a high perch to scan for prey, although it will glide over areas where prey is likely to be, it will walk on the ground, and it has even been reported to wade into the water. Scarcely anything that moves is safe from this fierce predator. It will eat prey as small as insects and scorpions or as large as domestic cats, woodchucks, geese, and Great Blue Herons. It has no predators (a very unusual thing in nature!) and will eat anything from crayfish to young foxes.

1st photo by Brian Scott @flickrCC
2nd photo by Kevin Day @flickrCC

Comments:
Hoo? Hoo? Did you see?
 
Figuratively speaking this is what I "see"> Just like 4 hoots indicate a male owl, 2 "hoo"s identify an L.A. law-bird native to Texas, now residing elsewhere, whose sometime silliness can be described as 2nd generational.

Thank you for your comment, mentor-son.
 
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