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April Owls

If asked what my favorite bird is I usually try for a clever reply like, “the next one…” But if pressed I’ll often admit that owls are high on my list of personal favorites.  I had some neat owl encounters last April that shored up that feeling- after all, any birding day including an owl is a great birding day!

On one occasion last month, my buddy Mike Freiberg asked if I’d like to try for a potentially photo-friendly Northern Pygmy-Owl that he had found while surveying for these diminutive junco-slashers.  I thought about it for about a millisecond and assented eagerly.  After work few days later, we headed up into the foothills above Golden, Colorado and were rewarded with a singing male in the last beams of sunlight before a nearby mountain’s shadow dimmed the scene.  A brief bout of imitated whistling brought the bird into photo range for a few minutes.  We also heard a female’s gentle calls, probably from a nest cavity nearby in the aspen/spruce grove, but never saw the other bird (or pressed the issue of finding it.)

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A co-teacher friend of mine noticed a Great Horned Owl nest near his house in Erie, Colorado while out on a run in early April.  While not extraordinary news in itself, I was intrigued to hear that the nest was in the novel location of a ledge on a bridge, apparently in plain view with no obstructions.  Naturally, at my next opportunity I headed over to check it out.  There were three hale-looking GHOW chicks hangning out on the ledge about 15 feet above the ground, hatched out of what looked like an old hawk nest.  The strange thing is that the bridge is fairly busy, and that a pedestrian sidewalk goes directly over the ledge, about 4 or 5 feet above!  A tall safety fence keeps folks from peering over, but as an experiment I snapped a pic with my iPhone by sticking my arm through the fence to the my shoulder and pointing it down and inward to snap the chicks.  They didn’t even look up- I doubt they knew I was sneaking any pics.  I think that is the best bird shot I’ve ever taken with an iPhone!

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Towards the end of April I visited an old favorite Great Horned Owl nest in a neighborhood NW of Boulder.  The nest is situated in a cottonwood snag across a ditch from a popular walking trail and has two chicks this year.  It affords nice, clear views and the owls are super tolerant, as they have to be with the constant stream of humanity, dogs, strollers, bikes, etc. flowing by every day.  For a while a very intriguing pair of long yellow legs ending in long-taloned feet have been hanging out of the nest (looking a little faded below after weathering for a couple weeks.)  Based on the lenth of the shanks I guessed a Cooper’s Hawk met its match with the flying tigers but Jerry Ligouri (author of the new must-have-if-you-love-raptors Hawks at a Distance) raised the credible possibility of Northern Harrier, with some close-ups of birds being banded showing apparent matching curvature of talons to support that hypothesis.

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Little sibling was still in the nest, but big bro/sis had graduated to the branching stage.  It was hard not to shoot a million pics of the scruffy little youth, still pretty damp after a rainy night.  Then one of those incredible birding moments happened- an adult with some furry item landed high in the cottonwood above and the chick began issuing a begging call.  Soon mom/dad flew down and presented baby with a tasty rabbit head- probably leftovers from the night before.  Fluffy picked at the offered treat a bit and then the parent handed it over.  Not unlike a child tipping over a glass of milk or tossing food from a high chair, in about 5 seconds the chick had dropped it to the ground.  If I were given to anthropomorphising I’d swear the adult looked at me with an expression of “Arrrghhh- again?!?”  while the chick continued to scrutinize its dropped snack.

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