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May 21, 2019 9:51 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Eagle And Owl Hatchlings

One of the two Great Horned Owl nestlings. Flight feathers and ear tufts are not fully developed MIKE BOTTINI
May 21, 2019 9:51 AM

Last week, I wrote about the bald eagle nest at Accabonac and, based on the behavior of the adults at the nest, perched on the nest rim and not sitting in the nest, I assumed the eggs had hatched. But I could not say for sure, as I could not see any movement in the nest, nor small heads popping up over the nest’s rim.Mark Gutzmer from East Hampton Town Natural Resources checked it out this week—and got a good look at the heads of two chicks in the nest. Exciting news! It will be interesting to follow the progress of the nestlings as they develop over the course of the summer.

Andy Drake, with East Hampton Town’s Land Acquisition Department, called me last week about another large raptor nestling, this one a great-horned owl. It was on the ground in one of the town nature preserves, and although it had quite a few flight feathers, it clearly was not able to fly. He decided to note its location and monitor it for a few days.

This is not an uncommon situation for owls. Before they are fully fledged, having replaced many of their downy feathers with flight feathers but not yet capable of flying, they will climb out of the nest and perch on nearby branches. With their strong toes and sharp talons, most owl hatchlings are excellent climbers and will wander all over their natal tree.

It is not unusual for one to get a bit too adventurous and take a tumble, their partially developed wings enabling them to flutter gently down to the ground intact and unhurt, but not to make the return trip up into the tree.

Such was probably the case with the bird Andy found. I went out a few days later to see how it was doing and was happy to see it doing just fine. Its larger sibling was keeping it company, and it was the sibling that I first noticed, as it took flight from the ground on my approach, landing quite a distance away in a large pitch pine.

After following its flight, my companion glanced back toward the area from which it had flown and spotted the younger sibling on a downed pine a few feet off the ground. It hopped off its whitewash-covered perch and hid in the huckleberry, clapping its bill while we examined an unusual, recently regurgitated and still wet pellet on the log, consisting of eight 5- to 6-inch-long feathers attached to a small mass of bones.

Even with the help of some guidebooks we weren’t able to definitively identify the species of bird that the young owl had dined on, but we did find another pellet nearby, and this older, dried-out one was cottontail rabbit, as evidenced by the teeth.

Great-horned owls have the most diverse diet of any raptor in North America, and we had found pellets comprising the two dominant groups of prey for this tenacious predator: mammals and birds. Combined, these two groups account for 99 percent of the owl’s diet, but it’s the wide variety and size range of its prey base that is astounding. Great-horned owls are known to consume prey as small as mice and sparrows and as large as woodchucks and loons.

They can carry three times their weight. In the case of the larger females, which can tip the scales at 4 pounds, they can take flight with 12 pounds of groceries in their talons. That’s amazing! And that puts the female wild turkey on the potential prey list.

Incubation for this species is a month-long process, and the hatchlings take approximately two more months before they are able to take short flights. Doing the math, the mother of these young-of-the-year owls had laid her eggs sometime in mid-February, getting a head start on the bald eagles and most other birds that nest in this area.

Well after they have honed their flying abilities, even into early fall, both siblings will be fed and looked after by their parents.

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