A walk through the woods almost always soothes my soul. I live on the north side of the Alaska Range just outside of Denali National Park in the small town of Healy. One week after summer solstice in 2018 while on a walk with my wife, Vicki, we stumbled across three great horned owlets in a spruce-aspen forest; they had just fledged from their nest. The owlets stayed near the ground, hopping around, and flapping up to low branches, as they had not yet figured out how to fly. A shrill shriek shifted our focus to one of the adults in a nearby spruce keeping its eyes on the offspring. The sound was new to us coming from a great horned owl, a notoriously elusive species. The owlets had a higher pitched, similar shriek. Along with warning calls from robins, magpies, gray jays, and ravens, and the sharp warning chirps of red squirrels, these unique owl sounds helped me locate this family of five as I watched and photographed them off and on for the next 33 days.
Great horned owlets usually fledge their nest at about five weeks and are fairly proficient flyers by 10 weeks. Both parents feed and tend them for two to four months. They generally have two owlets, but our area was experiencing an explosion in the snowshoe hare population—one of the owls’ main prey animals. This was likely a factor in having an additional owlet hatch and survive through fledging, as there was plenty of food. The parents traded off between hunting and hanging out keeping an eye on the young ones.
About a week after we encountered them, the three fluffy birds of prey began to fly short distances. I kept enough distance from the birds using my 500 mm lens with a 1.4x converter, causing minimal disturbance. Out of respect, I mostly visited them every two to three days, occasionally longer, but sometimes every day. They were often in the same area as we’d initially met and seemed to get used to my presence. Sometimes, though, I walked a lot trying to find them, but that was good exercise and nourishment for the soul. Occasionally, paying attention to the behavior of smaller birds or squirrels would lead me to the owls.
Each day the owlets became better flyers and began wandering farther from the nesting area. I liked having new places and trees to photograph them in. The whole scenario was a wildlife photographer’s quintessential encounter, and I felt deeply touched and grateful for the opportunity.
The end of July rolled around, and I was unable to find the whole family anymore. The individuals were spreading out in search of food. For the next 10 months or so, I rarely saw the birds. But then, I started noticing two of the young owls on a fairly regular basis and continued to for a couple of years. I witnessed a young goshawk try to attack one. A new family of four goshawks nested in the same area and they, along with a healthy lynx population, drastically thinned the population of snowshoe hares.
January 2021 was the last time I saw any of the owls, although I did see fresh owl droppings at a previously frequented spot that summer. We miss them, and while on our walks in the woods, Vicki and I still keep our eyes out for this family in the forest.