They might be wearing sunglasses.
A photographer soon learns at Silverwood Park in St. Anthony that patrons know the park is home to Great Horned Owls (GHO).
“See the owls?” is a common question perfect strangers ask those brandishing a long lens.
“How are the owls doing?”
Wood ducks are more colorful, bald eagle perhaps more inspiring, but if Silverwood has resident rock stars, it’s the yellow-eyed folks in the oaks.
This year a resident pair of nesting GHOs again hatched three owlets. Photographers crouched to snap these fuzzy luminaries from behind a line of road blocks and yellow tape cordoning a wood’s edge on a hill.
The owls have nested at different locations in the park. Once they picked a highly photogenic spot along a main park trail. This had the tripod crowd jostling for position. There was pushing and shoving.
Once Park security was called.
Migrating flocks of photographers are not unique to Silverwood. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board likewise cordons off owl nesting sites in its parks.
People love these owls.
At Silverwood parents pushing strollers could be seen taking the kids to see the owls. People dressed for the office climbed the hill to check on the birds. Small groups would mill outside the yellow fluttering tape, the more verbal giving needless play-by-play on movements in the nest.
Actually, GHOs are not that rare. There may be more now in Minnesota than in European settlement times, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) notes.
GHOs are not fussy. Ninety percent of their diet, it’s estimated, is made up of small mammals — squirrels, rabbits, thousands of mice.
But these aggressive predators will also eat hawks, crows, waterfowl, other owls; they did not win the moniker, “Tigers with wings,” through passivity.
GHOs supplement their diet with insects, fish, reptiles, even carrion. Normally nocturnal hunters, they hunt in daytime, too, if need be. Silent fliers — their feathers have sound deadening adaptations — they descend on their prey like ghosts with talons set to snap shut with 20 pounds of killing force.
The fact the Silverwood GHOs have been able to raise three ravenous chicks a year lends testament to their prowess.
Physically, GHOs are striking. “She’s so beautiful,” one Silverwood patron uttered, gazing at the female GHO.
Their patterned feathers range in color from reddish brown, to gray, to black. When perched in the shadows, shrouded by leaves, GHOs are close to invisible. Even in bare winter trees, these big owls blend in. More than one photographer, lucky enough to spot one, has looked away for an instance to glance back and no longer see the owl.
GHOs can grow two feet tall and weigh up to five pounds. They’re monogamous. As observed at Silverwood, GHO pairs spend months together prior to nesting. Often the park pair, the female, as with GHOs, the bigger of the two, could be seen shoulder to shoulder on the same branch along the trail.
While the female is on the nest, the male does the hunting. The female at Silverwood fed on rabbits, squirrels, perhaps some birds, tearing apart her mate’s trophies to feed the chicks.
Like most successful couples, owl pairs communicate. Occasionally the Silverwood GHOs exchanged soft hoots during the day, perhaps to let the other know, “I’m over here.” Typically, the Silverwood male spent daylight hours resting on a favorite perch perhaps 40 yards from the nest.
GHOs nest early. Often they will repurpose nests built by other birds, such as hawks, though will also nest in tree cavities or among broken branches.
They will also use nesting boxes and platforms.
The Silverwood female this year was on her nest Jan. 31. Only after some 56 days was she spotted by a photographer leaving it, by day, anyway. Even then, she, like her mate, stuck close. When the weather turned cold, or rainy, or windy, she was back on the nest shielding her chicks.
The chicks themselves became visible to onlookers in late March. The boldest began venturing forth into the branches around Easter.
GHOs raise one brood a year. Females lay one to five white, spherical eggs, incubating them for as long as 37 days, Cornell University Lab of Ornithology notes.
Since they may lay eggs over a period of days, some chicks have a head start in the growing game. That could have been the case at Silverwood this year as one of the owlets was a good deal smaller than its siblings.
One adage is GHOs lay their eggs by Valentine’s Day, see them hatch around St. Patrick’s Day, with owlets fledging around Mother’s Day.
“It varies of course,” Silverwood Supervisor Tom Moffatt said.
Chicks emerge from the egg helpless: eyes shut, pink skinned, partially covered with fluffy down. That they can survive subzero temperatures, blizzards, everything else Minnesota weather can throw at them is one of nature’s marvels.
“Look for puff balls,” one Silverwood patron advised another, studying the nest for chicks.
GHOs are among the top predators in the park, but they, too, have their tribulations. Crows bedevil owls. Dozens of crows will descend on them, cawing, swooping, doing their best to make the owl’s life miserable.
Indeed, one way to locate owls is check where crows are mobbing.
After the Silverwood owl chicks began hatching, crows became bolder, it seemed. Daredevil crows would land scant feet from the owls’ nest, as if counting the occupants.
The adult owls remained stoic.
They may have not been that alarmed. It would be a sad day for a crow, after all, if two enraged GHOs got a hold of it. At the same time there must have been tension. More than once after a mob of noisy crows had cleared the area, the owls would softly exchange hoots.
The nature of commentary can only be guessed.
Still, it’s humans, not crows, that most heavily populate parks. What do the owls think of these gawking, dog walking, camera wielding intruders?
Personal observation has led one photographer to conclude that humans, if keeping a respectful distance, do not unduly disturb owls. Only once has he seen a GHO bristle and hiss and that was when he unwittingly walked too close to a tree in which one was feeding.
When their owlets are on the ground, protective GHO parents can get, well, owly, Moffatt noted. GHOs will hiss, scream, snap their bills, spread their wings, stamp when angry.
The simplest remedy is distance.
One tale told at Silverwood is that the female GHO nesting in the park is a replacement, of sort.
The story is partially true, Moffatt explained. A GHO was killed some time ago in the park by flying into a building. But that owl, judging from the unworn pads on the bottoms of its feet, likely was a juvenile, he noted.
So death has not apparently yet separated the old GHO pair.
GHO families, like all families, are transitory.
Owlets usually leave the nest within six to eight weeks of hatching, notes the DNR. And while members of the Silverwood GHO clan last year could been seen in the park over the summer, by early fall the owls had dispersed.
The hooting heard in the park at that time could have been plaintive juveniles, feeling abandoned.
For almost two months last autumn one photographer didn’t spot any GHOs in the park at all.
But the owls follow their timeline.
By November the Silverwood GHOs could be heard and spotted again in the oaks. And as park patrons walked their dogs down the park trails, overhead a familiar pair perhaps watched the parade with round, house-counting eyes.
Below: An owlet out of the nest, the family together except for dad, the adult pair, and two owlets out of the nest. (Photos by Tim Budig)