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The Owls of Estes…

May 22, 2017

Estes Park’s Great Horned Owls: owlets on the left, Mama on the right

A couple of days ago I was complaining to a friend about how few owls I’d ever seen in Colorado – although I’ve been here now for 48 years – and have been told that owls abound. There was one – a small one – who held court for a few short days in a hole in a large maple tree across the street from our home. But that was ten years ago. College friends, Nancy and Bob Stocker, serious wild life photographers, have studied small burrowing owls just off of Pena Blvd on the way to Denver International Airport. I keep thinking of asking to go out with them on one of their sojourns, but then, as usual, forget to do so.

My owl drought ended yesterday, here in Estes Park. Ran into an owl bonanza after a visit and hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, a week prior to the opening of the tourist season. First a bit about the Park, then the owls.

In 2015, nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, which keeps the Estes Park economy humming, hosted 3 million visitors. Last year, 2016, the number went up to 4.5 million. I snuck in a week before high season starts on Memorial Day weekend. I am guessing, that trying to get to the national parks before Trumpty-Dumpty’s severe cuts (combined with growing privatization) to the national parks budget kicks in, that the numbers in 2017 will even surpass those of last year. Even before the high season, there were people from all over the country, the world. I heard German, French, (what I thought to be) Russian, Japanese spoken – all that in the Safeway on the hill near the Stanley Hotel in Estes.

I enjoy talking with people anywhere, but especially in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’m not interested in lengthy conversations – just get a sense of where they come from, who they are, and now, regardless of their backgrounds, how profoundly moved they all are to share in this magnificent place, which I can visit whenever for free because of my “senior pass.” Here’s a sampling – typical I might add – of the people I met and chatted briefly with, enough to make some kind of connection with:

  • In the park itself I chatted with two beefy-football-player-looking young men in their twenties from Kentucky with American flag, George W. Bush and a Christian cross on their back fender.
  • Later I exchanged world with a family from Beatrice, Nebraska, not far from Fairbury and Western from whence hails Nancy’s family. They were so excited to be in the mountains. The car the family was driving in suggested that they were not a part of “the 1%.” The dad looked like a modern version of Abe Lincoln, tall, lanky but powerful looking, a gentle look in his eye and one front tooth missing. One of his sons, a boy of 11 or 12,  proudly showed me the photos he’d taken of a bevvy of male elk camping out behind their motel. Excellent photos they were, better than anything I had taken. I told him he should be a wild life photographer; he gave a big smile.
  • Later that day I met a young man from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a student there, checking out the park. He’s going to spend the summer on some kind of work permit, working at an Estes’ pizza place.
  • Also exchanged a few words with a couple from Poughkeepsie, New York, not far from where my family summered in the late 1940s, early 1950s.

After a long day of wild life photography (it’s easy at Rocky Mountain National Park – pretty much every place you turn around elk, deer, mountain goat, and bird life galore are present) I pulled into the Estes Park parking lot just off of the town library. Nearby, three or four people with what I can only describe as “bazooka-like” telephoto lens were shooting away at cliff nearby. For the life of me, I couldn’t see what it was they were photographing. So I asked one of them. “A mother great horned owl and her two (rather sizable) owlet chicks” was the answer. Their natural coloring  camouflaged the owls so effectively, that, although they were on a cliff ledge less than 150 from where I was standing, it was only after a thorough search of the rocks above that I was finally able to make out the trio. What a treat.

Over the course of the next two days I went back three times and took more than 60 shots, only the best of which I post here. I assume that there is a fourth, a male out there somewhere hunting for food. The chicks were well along, rather large already and every ten minutes or so, looking down from the ledge, fluttering their wings but not quite ready to take the big dive into the air. Mama moved around a bit, walking from one side of the ledge (no more than ten feet wide, from time to time, on guard. Although spectators could get within what I would guess was about 150 feet from the birds, their home on the ledge was safe enough. They did not appear disturbed by the attention of viewers and photographers below.

Owlet exercising its wings

Local celebrities

Although I just discovered them rather by accident, the owls are well-known to locals, in fact too well-known. They have been the subject of articles in the local newspaper, the Estes Park Trail Gazette – two lengthy articles popped up in an initial “Google search,” one by Scott Rashid, Director of the Colorado Avian Research and Rehabilitation Institute (CARRI) who authored a book on the general subject of great horned owls, “The Great Horned Owl: An In-Depth Study.” An excellent website, for those interested, Colorado Avian Research and Rehabilitation Institute  which is, for “birders,” and any interested person, well worth exploring.

Owls abound in the valley surrounding Estes Park, 7500 feet above sea level and have been extensively studied. As Rachid noted in a 2012 article, a study done in 2002 noted that “a pair of Great Horned Owls distributed virtually every mile throughout the entire valley,” making the area something of a great horned owl cornucopia. Great horned owls are powerful raptors, some of the strongest birds anywhere in the world, with up to 10,000 pounds of grasping power in each foot, “talons to respect” Rashid calls them. With an adult wingspan of over four feet, standing two feet in height, Great Horned Owls are the largest owl found throughout the Estes Valley and Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).

This year’s nesting is far from unique. After an intensive period of mating – which results in the male being sure the food he is hunting goes to his own off spring – the birds generally begin nesting in the early spring. Rashid notes that “paired birds remain in their territories all year round and courtship begins with the male vocalizing to either attract a mate, or to reestablish his relationship with his existing one. When the male has chosen a nest site, he will call from it to attract his mate to it. He will often have a morsel of food to offer her.”

Although owl clutches can have as many as four or five owlets, two or three are more common. The females will lay one egg every two or three days. The females will start incubating after the first egg is laid. Females do most of the work but it is not unknown for the males to incubate as needed over the 35 day incubation period before hatching. During the first few weeks after hatching, the males do all the hunting. After that, the females do some hunting as well. The owlets remain in the next from anywhere from three-to-four weeks but some have been seen nesting up to three months. The owlets behind the Estes Library were quite large already, I would guess at least two months old.

Mama Owl keeps watch

Great Horned Owls have the most varied diet of any bird of prey in North America.

“Their large size and powerful feet and talons enable them to prey upon anything from insects to birds as large as turkeys, Great Blue Herons, and animals from mice and voles to house cats, young raccoons and even skunks. Their favorite food items, however, are rabbits and hares. They also enjoy pigeons, doves and rats. The birds at the Estes Park Library have fed upon Eurasian Collared Doves, American Crows, Black-billed Magpies, American Robins, Domestic Chickens, Great Blue Herons, Common Grackles and European Starlings; and animals such as rabbits, muskrats, voles, mice, ground and tree squirrels; there was even a house cat found in that nest a few years ago!”

Their large size and powerful feet and talons enable them to prey upon anything from insects to birds as large as turkeys, Great Blue Herons, and animals from mice and voles to house cats, young raccoons and even skunks. Their favorite food items, however, are rabbits and hares. They also enjoy pigeons, doves and rats. The birds at the Estes Park Library have fed upon Eurasian Collared Doves, American Crows, Black-billed Magpies, American Robins, Domestic Chickens, Great Blue Herons, Common Grackles and European Starlings; and animals such as rabbits, muskrats, voles, mice, ground and tree squirrels; there was even a house cat found in that nest a few years ago!

Articles on the library owls go back to at least 2012. They have been intensively studied, photographed and are nothing less than local celebrities. There is a detailed history of their occupation on the ledge, including of how in the spring of 2015, the owls had to move to safer grounds after some idiot humans climbed down the cliff from above to get a close up photo, disturbing the nest. Owls, it appears, don’t particularly like any living activity hovering above them.

Note: It is impressive how stupid people can be, especially people with cameras. In addition to owl-cliff climbers, yesterday, I watched as someone engaged in the photographic version of extreme sports, coming within less than ten feet of a resting bull elk. The elk was stoic, the photographer walked away with his photo and his life.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Alan Moorer permalink
    May 22, 2017 11:11 am

    There is an owl (or two) one in my neighborhood. I haven’t been able to lay eyes on him/her, but s/he puts out some lovely and sad hoots every evening. I hoot back.

    On Mon, May 22, 2017 at 9:25 AM, View from the Left Bank: Rob Prince’s Blog wrote:

    > Rob Prince posted: ” A couple of days ago I was complaining to a friend > about how few owls I’d ever seen in Colorado – although I’ve been here now > for 48 years – and have been told that owls abound. There was one – a small > one – who held court for a few short days in a ho” >

  2. kerim permalink
    May 23, 2017 7:52 am

    Look at these fluffy cute owl chicks !!! . They almost blend with their surroundings . Owls are unique birds with an incredible power to maneuver absolute stealth, when in flight . (Owls should remain a protected species ) . Pretty snapshots .

  3. Thomas M. Rauch permalink
    June 22, 2017 6:04 pm

    Rob,

    I read this marvelous post soon after you posted it, but failed to commend and thank you. Estes Park has always been our favorite place in Colorado, and the location for many vacations. This post, on my birthday, was a very special gift even though you didn’t know it would be. Thanks very much!

    Peace,

    Tom >

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