The Owlery

A short story illustrating the life and behavior of a family of Great Horned Owls - by Dave Brooks

Book One

A mother great horned owl in the nest with her two baby owls.

The mother Great Horned Owl in the nest with her two baby owls.


On the rural edge of a small town in Sonoma County, California, there is a line of eucalyptus trees near a creek. Next to it is a small neighborhood of homes where I live. The tree line has a church parking lot on one side and a small field and park on the other side.

The trees are tall, perhaps over 100 feet. They have good branching structure that offers great opportunities for nest building. In the early spring of 2016 while out walking my dog, I heard cries from baby hawks coming from the trees. I saw the parent Red-tailed Hawks moving in and out of this area. I searched the trees for the nest but I could not see any sign of it at all. Later, by watching the parents movements, I was able to determine that it was in one of two trees towards the east end of the tree line and more than halfway up the trees. Though I looked hard, I could not see any hint of the nest at all, the eucalyptus trees had very dense and abundant foliage that year.

The next year, in January of 2017, the trees had far fewer leaves than the year before. I was scanning the trees for the nest while out with my dog and I decided to look from the church parking lot, just to see what I could see. And from the parking lot, after much time and effort, I spotted it, higher than I had thought, and only visible from a very few locations. I was excited and happy to have finally found the nest.

I checked on the nest frequently, and in late February, 2017, through binoculars, I saw a singular shape in the nest.  I pulled out my small super-zoom camera that gives very high magnification, and there I saw an adult Great Horned Owl in the nest!

A mother Great Horned Owl with baby owls in nest, Petaluma, Sonoma County, California

This photo of the mother great horned owl in her nest, was taken in the middle of March, I believe her eggs had recently hatched.

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This was taken in early April 2017, the baby owls grow fast!

A baby Great Horned Owl snuggling up to its mother owl in their nest

Here is one of the two owlets, staying close to mama, April 2nd.

Baby Great Horned Owl in the nest eating

I was lucky enough to capture images of a major feeding session in the late afternoon on April 7th, while showing the young owls to several close friends, we were all delighted to get to see this feast. Showing other people the location of this nest, or any wild bird’s nest is something that must be done with great care and discrimination so that no one goes close to, or causes the birds distress in any way. Careful sharing like this is an opportunity to inform people of the delicate nature of wildlife observation as well as practical concerns like methods of home pest control - Use No Rodenticides, Ever!

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The baby owls really gorge themselves, each one eating about a dozen or more voles in a day. I believe this meal was something larger than a vole, a gopher perhaps.

A mother great horned owls with her two baby owls safely hidden in their nest

This photo was taken about a week after the feast. This shot is heavily cropped to zoom in and show the owls better. The nest looks easy to see in this photo but it’s not easy at all, if you step a few feet in any direction it quickly disappears.

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This shot is heavily cropped for a closeup view of the baby owls with their mother. These images are certainly not high in technical quality but they deliver the moment pretty well.

A very hard to see nest of the great horned owls, with two baby owls growing bigger every day

From a bit farther back you can see that it is easy to miss these owls.

A closeup photo of a young great horned owl in its nest in a eucalyptus tree in Sonoma County, California

In this shot I am starting to get some slightly better image quality results with my new camera and lens. Again, this shot is heavily cropped to bring us close to the owls, this shot was taken from about 300 feet away and 80 feet below.

Two fledgling great horned owls in their nest waiting for food to be delivered by their parents

It was tough to get both young owls in the same shot. It was also frustratingly difficult to get just one owl locked into focus with the leaves in front drifting back and forth with the breeze and stealing the focal point.

A fledgling great horned owl stretching its wings while in its nest

This was taken on April 21st. If you’ve got wings you need to start using them. The young owls move about their nest, flexing their wings, building strength and skill.

A mother great horned owl guarding her young owls

This photo was taken April 22nd. Mama owl is napping and guarding her young fledgling owls from above.

A fledgling great horned owl getting ready to fly from branch to branch

April 29, 2017, shortly before noon I encountered the fledglings in the lower branches of the eucalyptus trees. This young owl seems to be quite happy and pleased with itself. After building up those wing muscles in the nest the young owls begin walking their way along branches and start practicing flying by taking short flights along a branch for just a few feet or so. They gain confidence, skill and strength quickly, before long they are flying from branch to branch.

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These young owls are fledged now. They are making lots of short flights and practicing the most difficult part, landing!

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Mother owl is ever vigilant on guard duty, looking out for her youngsters from above, always in a strategic location offering good viewing and ease of launching into flight to defend against any threat or danger.

gGreat horned Owl grooming its talon

Grooming is very important and fits in, even while guarding the kids.

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Always on guard! May 2nd, 2017

A great horned owl mother with her young fledgling perched on a branch of a eucalyptus tree

May 5th, hanging out with mom on one of their favorite lower level branches.

A fledgling great horned owl in a tree

May 5th, the other young owl is obscured deep in the foliage of the lower branches about forty feet away from mom and sibling. I had to wait quite a while to get this clear of a shot as this one was pretty far in the thick of it and I struggled to find it again every time after looking away.

A great horned owl perched in the shade of a large willow tree

May 6th, in the deep shade of a large willow along the creek next to the field. The kids are up in the eucalyptus trees straight across the field from mama, she’s looking right at them.

A great horned owl in flight in good lighting with good focus

A few minutes later the mother owl launched into flight from the willow towards the tree line. I had a 1.4 teleconverter attached to my 200-500mm zoom lens and I was extremely lucky to get this shot with decent focus and exposure despite the teleconverter limiting the effectiveness of the autofocusing system of the camera. I was incredibly lucky to get this result on my first attempt at a bird in flight with my new camera.

A great horned owl perched high in a eucalyptus tree in Petaluma, California.

May 7th, back on guard.

A red-tailed hawk in flight

This is the female Red-tailed Hawk that, with her mate, built the nest the Great Horned Owls took over by force, timing and pure moxie. Great Horned Owls do not build nests, they take them over after others have built them. Red-tailed Hawks are proficient nest builders, however they nest about a month later than the owls so their nests from previous years are easy pickings for the owls. Contentious times followed this nest takeover. The hawks were not happy but the owls do not yield and they fiercely protect their claimed territory.

A baby red-tailed hawk in its nest in Petaluma, California

The Red-tailed Hawk and her mate built this second nest only forty yards away from their nest that was commandeered by the owls in the winter of 2017. They built this nest very swiftly after realizing that the owls weren’t giving the old nest back to them. This is the only shot I got showing one baby hawk on board. Soon after, there were no signs of any chicks in the hawk nest and I believe that the owls may have taken action to discourage any competition nearby.

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May 7th. A stare down? No, it’s just Mom getting ready for a thorough grooming session on her youngsters.

A great horned owl perched in silhouette in the evening sky

And this marks the closing point for this part of the story.

This tale is continued in Book Two.

Click here to go to Book Two