It was a cloudy morning just before dawn. As the sky lightened in the east, threatening storms became even more illuminated. I began to wonder if getting up this early for a bird count was going to be worthwhile. Still groggy with sleep, I crept out of the car and heard the distinctive “peenting” of American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) calling throughout Middlefork Savanna. The storms held off as a fellow naturalist and I headed down the trail, our eyes adjusting to the dim light of dawn. As we approached the craggy branches of an oak tree, we spotted the stocky body and characteristic “ear” tufts of a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) hunched over its breakfast. If we heard or saw nothing else on this hike, I knew at that moment, getting up early was worth it.
The great horned owl is Lake County, Illinois’ largest resident owl. It has an average wingspan of 50 inches! These owls get their name from the tufts of feathers on top of their heads that look like horns. The purpose of these tufts is camouflage and intimidation. While they have many vocalizations such as hiss calls and bill snaps, great horned owls are most known for their hooting call that seems to say, “Whoo’s awake? Me, too!” The best time to hear these vocalizations is during the mating season in January and February when the males and females pair up for courtship. During this time, great horned owl pairs can be seen mutually preening and presenting each other with delicious gifts. One common food item for a male to present to his possible mate is a striped skunk. This may not be an appealing dinner for a human, but to a bird with a poor sense of smell, it is a feast.
The great horned owl is the first bird species to nest in Lake County each year, laying eggs as early as February. Rather than build their own nests, great horned owls simply use a previously-built nest of another species, most commonly, a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Recently, an active nest with two fluffy owlets was found in one of the preserves. You can watch their antics, as well as other wildlife activity, on the Lake County Forest Preserves new Nature Cam Web page. Visit regularly—we update the page each time new footage is downloaded from the motion-detection cameras.
The owl nest featured on the Nature Cam page was discovered in February 2012. The nestlings were first spotted in early April, about a week or two after hatching. The eggs were incubated for about one month primarily by the female, although the male did step in from time to time to help. By the end of May, these two young owls should become fledglings, leaving the nest to practice flying under the close watch of the female. The family group will stay together throughout this summer, as the owlets learn to hunt and master the art of flying. In early fall, the owlets will leave the area in search of their own territories.