Post and photos by Marolyn and Skeeter Lasuzzo
We had been watching an old hawk nest at Hagerman NWR, hoping the hawk would return this year. The nest had been empty every day, but on this day a large bird flew from the nest as we stopped to take a look. It was not the hawk we expected, but instead it was a Great Horned Owl. Since it was obvious that the owl was very wary of people, it became very important for us to make certain we did not disturb the owl too much or it might abandon the nest. We would visit the nest once a week for no longer than five minutes. This was fine until others heard about the nest and many observers were stopping to take a look. The adult would leave the nest when a car stopped and be frantic to return to its eggs. The word soon spread "to be respectful of the nest" and most people limited their visits.
We left to spend a few weeks in Wyoming with the hopes that the adult owls would be left undisturbed long enough for the eggs to hatch and some little owlets to appear. One of the first things we did upon our return to Texas was to go to Hagerman and check out the nest. And there they were. Two little owlets staring back at us with those big yellow eyes.
Photographers should always be very cognizant of their impact on the wildlife they are photographing, especially baby birds in a nest as well as the parents trying to feed them. No image is worth risking any animal's safety. For that reason, Marolyn and I spent a few days observing the nest from a distance with binoculars. We determined the adults would arrive at the nest within 5 minutes of 7:00 P.M. to check on the owlets or bring food to the nest. Gathering this type of information from afar allowed us to determine when we could get in position to capture significant images with a minimum amount of disturbance. We usually spent less than 5 minutes at a safe distance from the nest to capture most of our images.
On one afternoon, we arrived at our vantage point to photograph the owls at around 7 minutes 'til 7:00 P.M. The adult arrived at 7:00 P.M. carrying a large wood rat. She flew in, took a short glance at us in our vehicle, and determined we were no threat. She turned to feed her babies (notice the less aggressive owlet peeking over the nest near the adult's legs). If she had looked at us and been uncomfortable, leaving the nest with the food and not immediately returning, we would have left. Once the feeding begins we must stay until the adult finishes feeding and leaves the nest on her own. Starting our vehicle to leave during feeding would scare the adult off the nest.
Life and death is part of nature. Seeing the little owlets grow and survive speaks to life and renewal and the cycle of life. One always worries about baby animals surviving the first tough months of life. The survival rate of wild birds and animals is surprisingly low - so many things can happen. One doesn't really think about survival of the parents of the babies. That's why we were surprised when we received an e-mail from a friend at Hagerman about the death of one of the adult Great Horned Owls that was a parent of the owlets in the nest. Evidently, the adult was hit by a car on a side road near the nest. The owl was still alive, but according to the representative from the wildlife rehab center who was called in to examine the injured owl, there was no hope of it surviving and it had to be euthanized.
When owls hunt, they are very focused and intense. They spot their prey and dive toward it, not paying attention to much around them - sometimes flying into the path of an oncoming vehicle. We saw this happen to a Great Grey Owl in the Tetons a couple of years ago. It's always sad to lose a magnificent creature like this to an accident, especially when one has been following it during its nesting and "young feeding" period.
The attention then turned to the babies and whether the single adult would be able to feed the owlets until they fledged and could feed on their own. I'm happy to report that the single adult did successfully feed its young and the little owlets have left the nest and should have fledged by now. Hopefully the lone parent can keep the owlets alive. As far as we know, they are doing fine.