I made a third attempt for the Beartooth Owl Nest Monday. As I related in a previous story, my first attempt was cut short by a grizzly. After waiting ten days my second try was again thwarted by said grizzly. So I waited five more days and returned once more.
It was high noon when I climbed the steep slope leading to a perch tree I had located my last visit. I figured the nest should be a stone throw from this tree, and if the bear will let me I’ll surely pick it out. I must have been 50 yards below the perch tree when something caught my eye. It didn’t register right away, because I had to back up for a second look. It was just a sliver of silver through the trees. I climbed higher for a better look.
“Hello!” There in an old hawk nest sat a great gray owl! One has to stand just right to gain a hole through thick timber to reveal the nest. She was sleeping, as it was the middle of the day. I’ll return in the morning to check for chicks.
It was 6:30 the next morning when I again stood on the steep slope and trained my lens on the nest. All was quiet and she barely acknowledged my arrival. Around 7am she sat up a little straighter and began whooping softly. She was begging for food. Every now and then the big owl would mix in a high-pitched chirp. After a while I thought I discerned soft peeping.
At 8:30am she suddenly rose up, looked up slope and flew off the nest. Two white fluffy balls were left exposed to the sky. Stretching their tiny wings they began chirping. I could see their eyes were open. I’d say 8-10 days old. Mom soon returned to cover them again. She had been gone 8 minutes.
Female owls brood the chicks by themselves, so every now and then she has to leave the nest to regurgitate her pellet and defecate. This keeps odors away from the nest. Quite often they will also bathe, but this she hadn’t done.
Once more she began begging for food. When 9:00 o’clock passed I figured the chance for seeing a feeding was unlikely. I’ve found great grays hunt three hours each side of daylight. It gets light around 6AM, so hunting would probably cease at 9. They will start again around 6PM, as it gets dark around 9PM.
I stayed until 10AM anyway, then gave up and headed down slope. It had been a successful morning as my goal had been to discern the number of chicks and age them. Her leaving the nest to perform her absolutions had given me the opportunity to do just that.
I returned Thursday for another try at a feeding. This time I did not arrive until 7AM. She was already begging for food. The last time she sat parallel to me in the nest, now she sat facing me. As I watched, the chicks pushed their way through their mom’s breast feathers only to disappear again as the chilly air reached them.
The sun popped out for a time and the forest came alive. My first western tanagers of the season passed through the treetops. A male bluebird perched nearby and sang. In the distance, sand hill cranes erupted with their eerie call. I soon found out why when a family of coyotes started yipping from the same area. There is nothing like hanging out at a nest.
Suddenly a loud crash followed by breaking sticks came from the woods 20 yards to my left. I instantly had my pepper spray in my hand, safety off. All was quiet again. I put the bear spray away. The owl stared at the spot for a time then went back to preening.
At 8:30 the great gray got excited and left the nest. The male arrived from upslope and they met on a large branch. I looked at the exposed nest. Three fluffy balls. Three chicks! “How about that!”
One chick was much smaller than the others. This is typical of most great gray nests. Three hatch out but the third rarely survives. I have had a couple nests that fledged three however. I’m pulling for this little fella.
The female returned to the nest carrying some kind of prey and began ripping off small pieces for her excited chicks. Within a few minutes the female gulped down what was left of the carcass and the nest became quiet again.
I left then, excited about the extra chick. The first thing I’ll look for when I return will be that third head.