Nature Notes – First nesting bird

By Jim Gilbert

Lately we have been hearing the duet hooting of great horned owl pairs that are setting up nesting territories. Now and into February is egg laying time for these owls; they are the earliest birds to hatch young in the state.
Following a snow or sleet storm, it’s not uncommon to see an owl, high up in a tree, incubating under a cover of snow or ice. It seems remarkable that its eggs should be laid before the last of the snow melts because they would freeze if left unprotected, but the reason seems clear when one considers some facts.
The incubation period is about 28 days, the young remain in the nest about six or seven weeks, and they are unable to fly until they are 10 to 12 weeks old. If the eggs are laid before the first of March, it will be mid-June or later before the young are partially able to care for themselves.
During this time and probably for a few more weeks, they are fed by their parents. The young are voracious feeders and their food is difficult to obtain, so it is much easier for their parents to provide for their needs before the summer foliage becomes too dense.
Great horned owls nest in forest areas in hollow trees, or they make use of old hawk, crow or squirrel nests. No nest is prepared by the owl itself. The usual clutch is two eggs, in a nest that is 30 to 70 feet above the ground.
Owls require an enormous amount of food as all birds do. They have an extremely high metabolism and can process the equivalent of their own body weight in food each day.
Owls are killers by nature.
They take all manner of prey, from insects, earthworms, fish and amphibians to birds and quite large mammals. Great horned owls may take cottontail rabbits or even striped skunks.
As predators, there are fewer owls than the food they eat, which is necessary or they would eat themselves out of business.
The great horned owl is nearly two feet in length, with a wingspread of five feet, and it weight about three and one-half pounds. It is the only large owl with ear tufts. They are found throughout the timber country in the United States and Canada up to the edge of the tundra.

What’s happening outdoors now?
About 11 inches of snow covers the landscape, but strong northwest winds have moved much of the snow around so it’s an uneven layer. Since the winter solstice on Dec. 21, 57 minutes of daylight has been gained.
A northern cardinal was heard singing its “what-cheer, cheer, cheer” spring song on Jan. 9, the first raccoons were out on the 12th, the day the temperature rose to 40 degrees for the first time in 2014.
A skunk was smelled on the 16th. Yes, we do have nature’s signs telling us that spring comes after winter.
Jimmy Mase from the In Towne Marina, located on the south side of Lake Waconia, reports that most of the ice cover is over 24 inches thick with some spots about 17 to 30 inches depending on the snow cover. Sunfish and northern pike bite during the day, crappies about 4 to 7 p.m., and walleyes bite during the night.
Arctic blasts have been responsible for fantastic frost patterns on some glass window panes, and for numerous birds and other animals coming to feeding stations and heated birdbaths.
Very few birds have been bathing but they sure like and need fresh water. Deer, foxes and squirrels also relish the water

On Jan. 30 a year ago
Only two inches of snow covered the landscape. We had overcast skies, a high of 26 and a low of 9 degrees F. Between 250 and 300 fish houses were out on the 18 inches of Lake Waconia ice.
Common redpolls came to feeding stations (none this year so far), and a few wintering American robins fed on crabapple fruit.