Teenaged Owls at Lava Lake
By Kathleen Bean
We have eight huge old Lombardi poplars on the lane into the ranch compound. They are slowly dying and, depending on who you ask, are either an embarrassment or works of natural art, like an Andrew Goldsworthy installation. Brian and I fall into the “works of art” camp, so they are left alone. Our biologists love them too because they serve as excellent bird habitat, particularly for raptors, including great-horned owls. The owls have nested in the trees for the past couple of years and our ranch manager’s family have had fun watching the babies grow and fledge. This year was no exception – a clutch of owls hatched in the spring. By the time I arrived in mid-June the birds had fledged and Bodie, our 12-year old resident naturalist, said they had left the nest and hadn’t been seen for several days.
My first night at the ranch I was nestled under the down comforter in my sheep wagon, enjoying the cool evening breeze coming in the window, the stars sparkling in the night sky, and was just about to drift off to sleep when I heard what could only be described as a terrible, raspy squawk. I couldn’t imagine what it was – I’d never heard such a noise at night before. The vast majority of birds rest at night and don’t make a sound. What was it? It went on literally all night long. The next night was the same story. I emailed our bird researcher friend Jay Carlisle and asked if it could be a young owl and he said yes – young owls make a raspy begging call. That night the racket started again and suddenly there was a terrific crash from the direction of my bathhouse – I ran out and trained my flashlight on its metal roof and there sat an enormous great horned owl. He had apparently crash-landed, not yet being an expert flyer. He swiveled his head to look at me and obligingly let out a loud “grawnk!” That proved it – I was being serenaded every night by teenaged owls.
Over the next month we spotted the owls sleeping in the willow trees near our yurt compound, and every night we heard them calling for food. One day after we bailed our first cutting of hay the kids saw two of our owl friends sitting in the field in the shade of a huge one-ton bale. The kids crept up from behind and Bodie managed to crawl out onto the top of the bale and look down on them before they flew away. They have given us a lot of entertainment this month.
I haven’t heard them for the past few nights, and I suppose they are maturing now and learning to hoot properly, as they should, but I will miss their crash landings and awful squawking.
And the aging poplars are here to stay.