Bird #236 — Great Horned Owl

bubo (owl) virginianus (of Virginia)

Saturday, March 19, 1983 — 3:45 pm

Barrington, Illinois — Baker’s Lake

I was on a crusade this day.  I knew there was an owl in the area and I wanted it bad.  I’d been birding for four years and my only owl sighting was the terribly confused Burrowing Owl I’d seen in a power-line strip between an expressway and blue-collar homes in Hammond, Indiana in 1980.

On Saturday the 13th, I was at Baker’s Lake watching ducks when I saw what I thought was an owl flying over the lake from the island to the shore near the round barn.

On Thursday the 17th, I went exploring.  I hiked around the lake, skirting marshes, crossing creeks and fields.  On the southeast side of the lake, I came upon a half-acre grove of pines, some of them quite large.  I had just taken a step or two into the trees when I heard branches crackling and saw a large bird fly out and disappear in the direction of the lake.  I was confident it was an owl, but I couldn’t identify it.

I returned on the 19th and made my way back to the pine grove.  Again, just as I entered, I heard a branch crack.  I got a brief view of a large golden/brown, short-necked bird.  It flew over a cornfield and was soon mobbed by a large flock of American Crows that appeared, as if by magic, from everywhere, cawing loudly.  I also found a pile of wing feathers (hen Ring-necked Pheasant?) on the ground under the trees. I soon lost sight of the owl, but the crows were hopping all over a tree across the field.  I extricated myself from the pines and headed in that direction.  Before I had gone very far, the crows took off again toward the lake.  When I finally scrambled back to the lake shore, the crows had mostly dispersed.  Only three were left, flying over the island.

I spotted the owl right away.  It was on the island, perched approximately 15 feet up a tree, halfway out on a limb, looking right toward me.  It just sat there, head turning side to side, sometimes as much as 180 degrees.  One time it leaned forward and scratched its neck with its claw.  It was still in the same position half an hour later when I left.

The island is a rookery.  Each summer it’s packed shore-to-shore with nesting Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons and Double-crested Cormorants.  The owl stayed all summer long and could be seen any time sitting on a large stick nest right in the middle of the herons.  They didn’t seem to pay it any attention, and vice versa.  It returned and nested in the same spot the next year or two.

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