This neighborhood has gone to the birds!
Mr. Hootie is at it again – creating trouble for his neighbors while they’re settled in for sweet dreams! Each breeding season we watch a neighborhood drama between two nests unfold – the Great Horned Owl nest at Roger’s Place and the Charlo Osprey nest. This year, however, things have gotten more complicated. So in case you’re not familiar with the history here, or the developments so far this season, we’ve created some bullet points that try summarize it for you here (though it’s a long one and takes some winding turns!):
Each fall and winter, this Great Horned pair uses the Charlo Osprey platform as a stage for hunting, hooting, and courting. As a nocturnal species, they make their appearance during the night and are often heard calling in the background, even when not visible on cam. At this latitude, Great Horned Owls do not migrate, so this is their year-round turf. Charlie and Charlotte, on the other hand, are snowbirds. Fall triggers their long flight to the warm climates of the southern United States, Mexico or South America and, come mid-April, they return to their summer home in Charlo for breeding season.
For the Great Horned Owls of this area, breeding season starts early. We typically find them on nests in mid-February – long before most migrating species and a full month ahead of other owl species. By the time Charlie and Charlotte arrive and begin their breeding season activities, Wonky and Mr. Hootie (as the Great Horned pair are known), already have chicks in the nest who are around three weeks of age. Great Horned Owls have been nesting in the area for at least 35 years, and this pair for many. Wonky and Hootie were the subjects of a 2018 nest cam, located in a different tree, where they fledged three young. In previous years, Great Horned Owls have even nested on the Osprey perch, although we’re not sure if it was this pair.
While Mr. Hootie and Wonky are permanent residents, the exact extent of their breeding territory is not known…but this perch is in it, for sure! We’re monitoring two other Great Horned Owl nests nearby – one within 800 yds, one about 1300 yds away. While an individual male may have a large territory, we often find them utilizing just a small area around the nest for routine hunting and roosting. The distance between this year’s nest and the Osprey platform is approximately 180 yds – that’s just a few flaps and a glide away! This means that the Osprey nest is not only within Hootie’s territory, it is within his most heavily hunted and patrolled area.
The area where both cams are located is on the edge of the Ninepipes Wildlife Refuge. State, Federal, and tribal conservation lands are dotted throughout the area, and wetlands are common. Bird life is varied and rich. Canada geese are one of the most conspicuous species here – population density, massive size, and round the clock honking make them a big presence. Viewers of both cams are well accustomed to these nonstop background sounds. Within a short distance of the Osprey platform there are at least 25 active goose nests on the ground or in boxes!
Each season we see geese visit the Osprey platform and, indeed, a goose has nested here before. But, like the owls who have once called this platform home, that was many years ago. In recent years, Charlie and Denver have joined forces and shooed them away before any serious nest prep begins. But not this year! Before Charlie’s return, and while Denver has been spending most of his days tracking Great Gray Owls across the countryside, this honking pair made their move. The female is currently incubating three eggs, with many more likely.
Charlie and Charlotte haven’t been seen at the nest yet this year, although Osprey have returned to the Mission Valley. One was even seen for an extended period on cam yesterday. He was fishing and eating from a distant platform, one that Charlie routinely utilizes. Known as his ‘mancave,’ this platform nest is located in a nearby pond. It has a fixed, open-top cage to hold in nest material, usually straw from the landowner, although it hasn’t been filled in many years. Charlie defends this spot vigorously and makes sure no other Osprey hang around it for long. So was this Charlie seen yesterday? It sure seemed promising at first – especially given his fondness of this exact spot. But he never approached the nest and there has been no sign of him this morning. If the geese successfully hold on to their nest, this seems like a logical site for Charlie and Charlotte to relocate. However, there is no camera at this location, nor does it lend itself to one.
Back to the relationship between these two nests. The male Great Horned Owl, Hootie, has attacked Charlie as he sleeps on the nest perch on many occasions. Seventeen times, to be exact, or since the incredible record keeping of moderators Poppy and Rkn Robin began. Over this time, Charlotte has never been attacked as she incubates, nor have any chicks ever been stolen. Charlie, however, has taken some brutal hits – some that take your breath away. Some have even prompted us to survey the area, expecting to find an injured – or worse – Charlie on the ground. But he has proven himself to be one tough Osprey! His ability to shake it off and get back to providing for his family is nothing short of inspiring. And Charlotte isn’t one for excuses! This territorial tension – one that is sometimes hard to watch - has become an integral part of the Charlo Osprey viewing experience.
Now to the events at hand. Yesterday’s Osprey sighting was like a carrot on a stick. And while we’re all anxiously speculating how the situation between the Osprey and the geese will play out - Enter Mr. Hootie! With the seeming force of a missile and in complete silence, he whacked the female goose off the nest last night at 10:25 PM. She didn’t return to the nest until 6:25 AM. That left the eggs unattended and uncovered for eight hours, although this does not harm them. The physiology of developing eggs makes them specially designed for such periods in the cold. Hootie later returned to the perch, looked down at the eggs, and flew off. This event marked Hootie’s first attack on an incubating female.
Back at the Roger’s Place nest, it was reported that the female Great Horned Owl was off the nest when the attack occurred. This leaves us with the question, do we know for sure the attacking owl was the male? In short, no. We looked at the video and don’t feel like we can say for sure. It’s most likely, however, given Hootie’s long history of attacks, and that male owls do most nest defense. An interesting caveat however, is that when a female does decide to engage, watch out! Not only is she bigger, but our experience is that these attacks are more aggressive than those of males. And this was an atypical attack for Hootie given that it was to the incubating female. We welcome your input IDing the owl here.
In summary, the events of this lively neighborhood might, at times, feel like a soap opera whose cast of characters include a local Great Horned Owl family, a Canadian goose couple, and a soon to arrive Osprey pair, fresh off a flight from the south. In reality, of course, this is simply a window into the lives of these wild animals, who are all working hard to raise young. Fortunately, we get to watch it unfold as it will.