Feathered Friends: Eagles and owls getting ready for nesting

Right now, bald eagles can be seen pairing up in preparation for nesting.

By Hans Kunze
Special to The Spectator

Now that we are deep into a cold winter, the birds are using the bird feeders in large numbers. If you feed the birds, you have great opportunities to see several very pretty and interesting species.

I encourage you to study your “feeder guests” and you will likely realize that there is a greater variety than you thought! The heavy snow pack and much colder weather makes finding natural food much more difficult; thus, you may see more species and even greater numbers of cardinals and several others. Some less common birds to look for would be the eastern towhee, white-crowned and white-throated sparrows, song sparrow, Carolina wren, flicker, sapsucker, and others.

However, as deep as we are into winter, it is actually the start of nesting season! If you have been outside on a calm cold evening, you may have been hearing the hoots of a great-horned owl in the distance – and very likely the calls of two of them from different locations. It is the time when these “top-of-the-food chain” nighttime hunters begin their courtship and nesting season.

Reader Janie Ferguson captured this image of a majestic bald eagle in Cameron Mills, Steuben County.

During February the female will begin incubating her eggs – generally two or three – and they will take about a month to hatch. Great-horned owls hardly ever build their own nests and prefer using a former red-tailed hawk’s nest. Red-tails and great-horneds have the same basic widespread mixed habitat of woodlands and open country. Since these owls nest so early, they have a pretty good choice of nests to choose from. Some also may use a hollow tree. During February snowstorms and March’s inclement weather just imagine that female owl way up high in her nest swaying in the cold brutal winds! Her job is to keep those eggs warm against her body. After about 10 weeks the young will be ready to fledge which means early summer – a time when several smaller bird species are just getting started. There are situations where the owl nesting can be later because of a nesting disruption which can happen with most any species.

Not far behind the great-horned owl begins the bald eagles’ nesting season. Right now, bald eagles can be seen pairing up in preparation for nesting. A nest near Warsaw, NY with a great view from the road is showing much activity. A couple of weeks ago I enjoyed watching the adult pair both huddled in the nest as if they were “arranging the furniture” placing and readjusting the sticks and the cup lining of the nest. Eggs aren’t likely to be laid until March but it can vary significantly with eagles. They will need a week or two longer than the great-horned owls to fledge their young – usually two of them. Reading up on eagles, apparently eagles can put on one of the most fascinating courtship displays where they lock talons in flight and actually summersault through the air.

It is amazing how many people have alerted me of their bald eagle sightings over the past several months. Though some eagles migrate, it seems like most are have spent their winters right here in western New York over the last several years. Given our large deer population, and thus many road kills, the eagles have done very well, especially when most bodies of water are frozen over. Most sightings and close-up looks of eagles are possible as the eagles feed on deer carcasses and actually protect and claim them for their own – maybe allowing some crows to scavenge a little and maybe some immature eagles as well.

Many people are seeing the eagles flying which is impressive. At a distance they look like a big dark flat plank moving through the sky as often the white head and tail blend in with the sky. When the turkey vultures return in March, they glide through the sky with their wings in a V-shape – not flat like the eagle.

Whereas the bird feeding station is providing some really fun and interesting interaction with so many neat birds, we need to watch for a wide variety of birds away from the bird feeders as there are many. With February on our doorstep, we’ll be seeing early signs of spring which I’ll elaborate on next time.

In the meantime, just enjoy the snow and the fact that we are having a what seems to be a normal winter. This snowpack is good news for several reasons. Keep an eye out for the majestic bald eagles and keep your ears alerted to the nighttime hooting of the great-horned owl. Both of these birds are masters in the world of birds and are very important parts of the food chain.

Happy birding and thanks for reading and for your positive feedback!