Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Wonder of Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owl Corona de Tucson, AZ 8-8-08

When I am out birding, I am often filled with wonder. Birds of all sorts inspire this feeling in me and owls are no exception. They are not only mysterious as creatures of the night, but they are also powerful hunters and symbols of wisdom and wildness. While I often go out in pursuit of this sense of wonder, the amazing thing is when wonder creeps up on you unexpectedly, like it did on Saturday, February 14, 2009 in Rio Rico where Gus and I scoured the countryside counting birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count. On the slopes of the San Cayentano Mountains in Rio Rico, AZ it is late in the day as we arrive and we watch as the shadows deepen and fall across the valley only to swallow the hillside in darkness around us. We know a spot high on the mountainside where we can watch the city lights as darkness descends. From high on our lofty perch the twinkling lights below sparkle like illuminated jewels, or flicker and flash like fireflies in the night. 

As we drive up the dirt road in twilight our headlights illuminate the gravel road before us. I am still looking out the windows for birds when I see a thick shape at the top of a utility pole. I tell Gus to stop the car, because I think there is a Great Horned Owl up there, but at first he doesn’t believe me. He thinks it is the hawk. He stops the car so I can look through the binoculars at the large mass of feathers perched above us. Its thick head and neck with ear tufts reveals it to be just what I thought it was, a Great-horned Owl. I pass the binoculars to Gus so he can have a look, and as we are both watching through the windshield of the car the owl raises her hind end as if to vent when suddenly like a ghost another owl appears out of the dusk. Its wings form a massive canopy over the female as he lands on top of her fluttering. I think he is trying to get a foothold on the same pole as her before it dawns on me that I am witnessing the mating of two Great Horned Owls! It is all over in less than 20 seconds and he is gone like the wind in the night. The female lowers her rump to the pole and assumes her upright perched position again. Gus and I sit there in wonder as we realize what we have just seen. Birding is Fun because of these unexpected moments of wonder and that is why birding never grows old for me. 
The Harbinger of Night

 The Harbinger of Night

In dusky light I walk my dog tethered to me
the desert landscape spread before me

like a thorny blanket

when the hooting of an owl
calls to me from the canyon.

Below me in the twilight
with a half moon rising
on silent wings the dark bulk flies
up into desert skies and lands
on a Palo Verde tree
less than fifty feet from me
rotating its horned and feathered head
it locks amber eyes on my frozen form,
while the dog tugs impatiently on the leash.

I stand breathless and silent
with the desert chorus singing their nighttime lullaby
--whit WHEET! the trasher,
--tink, tink, tink, the black-throated sparrow,
--squeak! squeak! squeak! the Gila woodpecker,

and while the cactus wren cackles and scolds from the cholla cactus,
The owl and I stare each other down
as minutes pass like desert gnats,
until the harbinger of night lifts off
on ponderous and silent wings
and flies away with my breath.

  ~Kathie Adams Brown (October 7, 2008)

Great Horned owls are found all across the United States. Below are just a few of the owls that Gus and I have photographed in various places.

GHOW at Whitewater Draw, AZ 2-22-2008 by Gusto!

GHOW at Gilbert Water Ranch 8-28-2009 by Gusto!

GHOW in Andover, MA 5-7-2012 by Kathiesbirds

I hope Great Horned Owls and all bird species will continue to "fly away with your breath!"

Please come visit me at Kathie's Birds. You are always welcome!


  1. Those images are so beautiful and we had our first real encounter as shown on my blog January 21, 2011... Woah~

    1. Mary, I'm glad you enjoyed them and I will have to check out your blogpost too!

  2. Wonderful images, Kathie! You were so fortunate to be a witness! I don't see many owls here, but often hear one hooting in the woods behind our house. It makes me think of old stories from my childhood.

    1. Hilke, I haven't seen or heard many around here either. The one in the cemetery is the first one I have photographed here in Massachusetts. I hope the stories from your childhood are good memories!

  3. Great post, Kathie! I love the owls and your photos are awesome!

  4. ...beautiful post, Kathie! I love GHOs too and listen for their nightly calls. I love the photo from Gilbert Water Ranch--the eyes are incredible!

    1. Kelly, it is very hard to get them with their eyes so wide open in daylight! Gus was very fortunate!

  5. A special beautiful post, Kathie! Wonderful narrative and fantastic images! The first Great Horned Owl I ever saw was a baby. We heard these scratchy calls for days and finally located where they were coming from. To our delight we saw a fluffy little owlet hidden well behind the dense tree branches. We did catch a glimpse of the adult female nearby every once in a while. Definitely the highlight of my spring. Awesome post!

  6. Bonitas fotos de estas rapaces nocturnas.Saludos

  7. Beautiful post Kathie. There is something very primordial and moving about GHOWs, a creature that seems able to look back or forward in time.

  8. It seemed to me, being with you there, as you wrote it well!
    what a special meeting that evening!! Pictures are beautiful, as always. The 3rd one looks so proud and/or suspicious :-)

    1. Thank you so much! I am glad that you felt like you were there! As a poet, it is what I always hope for!

  9. Kathie, great post! You really captured the romance and allure of the Great Horned Owl. I've enjoyed watching them nest and raise young in the Boise foothills. I enjoyed their pre-dawn hooting from the roof of my house there too. They would sit like sentries on the light posts in that neighborhood. My kids and I enjoyed pulling apart their pellets and seeing what the owls had eaten.

    1. Robert, when I lived in Sycamore Canyon near Tucson they would sit on my rooftop as well and hoot! I had to be careful about letting my little dog out at night for she is small enough to be carried off! I have only heard one once here in Andover in my new neighborhood and that was this past winter during mating season. It was a surprise and a real treat to find the one in local cemetery! When we lived in Idaho all those years ago they used to nest near our house and I believe one carried off a kitten we had. I don't want to think about what happened to it.

  10. Kathie,
    A bird I am dying to capture with my camera. Have never seen one ;-(. I know, how can I live in CT and not see a great horned owl? Its just never happened. Thanks for sharing a great post.

    1. Vincent, you might try your luck down at Hammonassett Beach SP. I have seen them there before in the evening.