Great Horned Owls – From Nesting to Fledging

by Robert Strickland | May 15, 2015

The Great Horned Owl begins nesting earlier than most other birds in the U.S. and by spring, young likely have hatched or are ready to hatch.

Here, I share photographs and the story of one pair from the incubation to fledging of this cosmopolitan bird. This January 2015,
I was visiting a pond and a wooded area behind the Citrus County Sheriff’s office in Lecanto. Florida. The area contains large oak trees with an open meadow area – a perfect habitat for nesting Great Horned Owls. The grass is only mowed once a month, which provides good places for owl food including mice and other rodents to live. I saw an owl that appeared to be sitting on a nest in a live oak tree. The nest, surrounded by ivy, was just above eye level on a huge branch, making it very picturesque. The nest looked like a depression in a large branch covered with ivy. Great horned owls do not build nests, but rather find old squirrel and hawk nests, or sometimes large cavities in trees. The Great Horned Owl may line its nest with bark pieces, leaves or feathers plucked from its breast or even from feathers of prey, but sometimes it just uses the nest the way it was found.

Great horned owl - Copyright Robert Strickland

A Great Horned Owl sits on its nest in a live oak tree surrounded by ivy.

The great horned is North America’s most common owl and lives in deserts, wetlands, forest, grasslands, and even backyards as well as open habitat from the Arctic south to the tropics. In colder climates, this early nester may be sitting on eggs when snow is falling.

Female great horned owl - Copyright Robert Strickland

The female Great Horned Owl returns to the nest to continue incubation of the eggs.

When I found the nest site in Florida, the female was likely already sitting on eggs. I took some photos out of the window of my truck—then got onto the back of the truck to get higher, which spooked the bird, something I prefer to not have done. However, I thought if I remained there quietly, she might return. I set the camera to 1000 ISO to capture her in flight and noticed she was heading back to the nest. She landed on a knob above the nest, looked at the nest and dropped down toward the nest along the green ivy growing up the tree making the photo background attractive. I remained frozen as she flew down toward the nest; I held down the shutter and was able to capture her flying into the nest. After about four weeks, the eggs hatched—and I noticed two small gray globs barely in view as they remained beneath the mother’s feathers for warmth.

Female owl with young - Copyright Robert Strickland

A female owl sits with her young.

I returned weekly to check on the owlets. In just a week, the drab blobs had started getting some brown and the details of their feathers were starting to appear. In six weeks, the owlets were taller and more active, their hunger no doubt satisfied by the parents bringing rodents, mice and snakes to the nest.

Owlets with snake - Copyright Robert Strickland

An adult dropped off a snake for the owlet, who at first had trouble getting it down its stomach.

One day at about 11:30 a.m., the female flew to the nest and dropped a snake which one of the owlets immediately grabbed and started to eat. However, because it was so long, the young bird had some trouble getting it down. After several minutes of grasping and gagging, the owlet finally succeeded.

As the weeks went on, the parents began staying away from the nest, instead sitting on a nearby tree, on alert for predators and to get food as the need arises Both parents feed the owls, but it’s the mother who incubates the eggs as well as the young when they need to be kept warm. Sometime hunting takes them a ways from the nest site and it can be a long time before the parent returns with food. You can tell when one of the adult Great Horned Owls has returned to the nesting area with food. The parent makes a cooing noise while moving toward the nest.

The owlets began looking out for each other as they got bigger. They moved around the tree going farther from the nest each day. Most of the activity was at night when owl are most active, however if you are in a blind you can have success seeing the adults during the daytime when they are interacting with their young.

Two owlets - Copyright Robert Strickland

The owlets sit close together near the nest.

As the owlets grew, they moved all over the trees, flying awkwardly from branch to branch. They stay near the nest tree so they’re ready when a parent comes in with food.

Great horned owl feeding young - Copyright Robert Strickland

An adult Great Horned Owl offers food to the young.

When photographing the owlets, the easiest way to find them is to sit in a blind and let the adults lead you to them. It is imperative that you conceal yourself in a blind to not disturb the birds and get the best chance of watching the adults react with the young. Once, I was tucked away in the blind and suddenly one of the adults dropped to the ground then flew into a nearby tree. I watched it intently, but then a Carolina Wren landed right in front of the blind and I lost track of the owl. Then I heard the owls hooting. The male, though smaller than the female, has a deeper hoot—and you can hear the difference in pitches when they call to one another.

I peeked out of the blind and saw the owlets as the adult offered them food. I realized right there that the owlets had become mobile and are able to fly high enough to hide in the moss making it almost impossible to find them.

Great horned owl with owlet - Copyright Robert Strickland

The adult Great Horned Owl has brought food and is standing with the owlet.

It has been a blessing for me to be able to chronicle this Great Horned Owl family from the nesting to the fledging, watching the owlets interact, sleep and get fed by their parents.

I shot these photos with a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon EF500mmf/4L IS USM lens, and then with my new Canon EOS 7D MKII with a Tamron 150–600mm lens. I used several different ISO setting depending on the light. You need much higher shutter speeds in low light to get clear crisp photos. This camera is quite capable of producing a great photo at the higher ISO. If there is any noise the post processing can reduce it.

About the Author

Robert Strickland specializes in nature and wildlife photography and spends many hours in the field exploring the best way to capture an outstanding image. He embraces the power of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop Elements 11 when preparing his art for publishing. He uses Canon Digital SLRs including the 6D and 7D MKII, plus uses the SP 150-600MM F/5-6.3 Di VC US lens, Canon 28-105 IS, and 100mm macro. He also attaches a flash and flash extender as needed.

Robert is a graduate of New York Institute of Photography and former member of the Professional Photographers Society of New York State. He's had works published in many magazines including: Living Bird, National Geographic Daily Dozen, Nature Photographers Magazine, North American Bluebird Society, Ducks Unlimited, Finger Lakes Magazine, American Agriculturist, Bird Watching Magazine, National Wildlife, and many others. He won first place in the National Wildlife Federation amateur division for backyard habitat, 2009 Great Backyard Bird Count Photo Contest. You can see more of his work at www.robertstricklandphotography.com.

4 thoughts on “Great Horned Owls – From Nesting to Fledging

  1. Interesting article and nice photos. My favorite is the female coming in for a landing with the beautiful forest environment visible. The only thing is that I believe those are ferns (not ivy) around the nest. Regardless, I’m sure it was great to be able to spend time observing and photographing this family! – Ken

  2. Robert. This is a great article. Thank you for sharing your experience with the nesting GHO. It was a perfect place for them and I hope they return next year.