In late December, I was walking through the deserted golf course at Bethpage State Park — my ears and eyes keenly focused on the natural world.
From a grove of pines, I heard distinctive hooting.
Mama, I thought, might be back.
Mama is a great horned owl that had nested in the same scrub pine with her mate the two previous winters. Owls hoot in early winter to establish male-female bonds and to reserve their territory.
When I returned in January, sure enough, I saw Mama and her male partner perched high in the very same scrub pine. Two days later, she was sitting in the very same nest. Great horned owls don’t build their own nests, but often use nests left by other birds, including red-tailed hawks. In this case, I had built Mama’s nest out of tar paper and chicken wire and placed it in the tree three years earlier. In my own brand of suburban renewal, I’ve been building such nests for about 20 years.
On Feb. 2, I went back to the park. I used a truck with an utility bucket to rise up and peer at them from about 20 feet. Sure enough, through my powerful camera lens, I saw three eggs.
I made sure to be quick. Great horned owls are fiercely protective and could attack with their sharp talons.
These birds, also called winged tigers, have different personalities. Mama is calm and determined. I’ve seen her remain seated on her nest even when red-tailed hawks dove through her tree.
Perhaps because people are common on the golf course, Mama simply flies away when she sees the bucket truck coming. She perches in view of the nest while I take a few quick photos, and flies right back as soon as I drive the truck away.
Mama’s eggs would hatch in 27 to 34 days, so I wanted to leave her alone for a few weeks. In daylight hours, owls become winged phantoms. Beautifully camouflaged, quiet and secretive, they are content to pass the time perched on high. I’ve seen mother owls stay in the nest through terrible sleet and snowstorms. Although only three pounds, females are usually bigger than males, about 2 1⁄2 feet tall, the size of a medium dog.
When I returned on March 10 and looked again through my camera, I saw three fuzzy chicks. Also in the nest were three dead rats — undoubtedly a food supply gathered by the parents.
But on March 15, only one chick remained. The other two might have been too weak to survive, which is common.
Mama laid three eggs in 2016 and three in 2017. Two fledglings survived each year.
In a couple weeks from now, the single chick might get out and hop around on the branches. At first, it could fall to the ground, but climb back up using its beak and talons. By about mid-April, it should be strong and agile enough to fly away.
I also know that the fledgling might not make it. It could fall and be prey for a fox. Raptors are savage and live in a savage world. It’s nature’s way.
Reader Jim Jones, a longtime naturalist and animal rescuer, lives in Bayville.