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Yesterday, at around lunch time, my friend Sam texted me. There was a Great Horned Owl perching in an olive tree in his back yard. Was I interested in photographing it? Sam is practically a neighbor so I pulled into his driveway within 10 minutes of receiving his text.
The owl was perching within the olive’s heavily leafed branches. It was a problem in geometry for me to find an unobstructed sight line to the bird. It took me a few minutes to solve that problem but, finally, I was able to thread the needle.
I was particularly pleased that, for a a few seconds, the owl opened its eyes while it watched me warily as I maneuvered to photograph it.
Great Horned Owls are territorial. An adult owl stakes out a territory of a few square miles and defends that territory from interloping owls. It will maintain and defend the territory for its entire life — a decade or more. Within that territory the owl has favorite daytime perches as well as favorite nighttime hunting perches.
An owl and its mate have been living in Sam’s neighborhood for several years. Two years ago I photographed the pair perching in the same olive tree. This owl very likely is a member of that pair; I don’t know whether it is the male or the female owl.
Great Horned Owls are primarily nocturnal. During the day one seeks a sheltered perch, away from prying eyes. It’s very common for a resting owl to do exactly what this owl was doing, hiding in thick vegetation. An owl can become virtually invisible when it is motionless and perched this way. I had to ask Sam to point the bird out to me because I was unable to find it on my own.
Everything changes at dusk. Typically, Great Horned Owls become active right after sunset. As darkness encroaches, an owl awakens and flies to its favorite hunting perch, usually a high limb or outcropping with an unobstructed view of the ground below. There, the owl waits, using its superb hearing and vision to detect any prey moving beneath it. When something does, the owl descends silently and rapidly, seizes its prey with powerful feet and long talons, and dispatches it almost instantly.
Great Horned Owls are eclectic hunters, taking prey ranging in size from mice to rabbits and skunks. Stories about owls carrying off small dogs and house cats are urban legends, however. A Great Horned Owl weighs between two and three pounds and is unable to fly carrying anything that weighs more than it does. The owl lacks the strength to carry off a 10-pound house cat or a 15-pound dog.
Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens, supported by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 1600, f4 @ 1/1600.