Spring signs of life, and living dangerously

Birding! I’ve actually had the chance to do a little birding lately!! With my new job responsibilities at work, I’ve been working crazy long hours. That should die down once I completely transition, but in the past month, time has been pretty precious. However, over the last week I have set aside a couple of weekend days to get out and go birding, and the weather thankfully has been pretty good the last 2 weekends.

One priority in finally getting out…going to see a Great Horned Owl nest that has gotten a lot of attention, and was only 10 miles away. Palisades State Park is a gem of a little park. Splitrock Creek runs through the park, and in some areas there are steep cliffs of our famed Sioux Quartzite that rise to 50 feet or more above the river. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbing, with multiple tall quartzite spires in the park. I’ve seen Canada Geese often use those cliffs for nesting, as you can’t imagine a better place to be protected from land predators. But a hiker a few weeks ago noticed a different nesting bird…A Great Horned Owl! She’s in a spot perfectly protected from her now adoring fans, as you can only see her from the opposite side of the river.

As the following pictures show, it’s a rather interesting situation in this particular part of Palisades State Park:

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus
At first glance when you look across the river towards the nest, this is what you often see…a lone adult Great Horned Owls and….some fluff!! Sometimes she’s sitting directly on three little fluff balls, other times like this, they’re hiding behind her when the morning sun comes up and lights up her side of the canyon. She’s positioned the nest about 20 feet up the cliff wall, in a part of the canyon where the gorgeous pink Sioux Quartzite rises vertically on both sides of the narrow canyon.
Great Horned Owl nest - Feeding Chicks - Bubo virginianus
For all the nest watchers (and there seem to be quite a few, for sparsely populated South Dakota standards!), there’s often not a lot of action during the day. But on my visit last weekend, after watching the nest for about an hour, the parent bird stood up to not only reveal a couple of chicks underneath her (and one behind her), but there was also part of a bird she’d caught and had been feeding the chicks. For 30 minutes the 4 or 5 of us watching were treated to the sight of her feeding her young chicks.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) nest with 3 young chicks
The happy family after finishing breakfast. The young are getting bigger, and some of their flight feathers are just starting to come in (you see a hint of that in the above photo). Her choice of nest site offers protection from ground predators (although the Canada Geese in the park will often fly at her to express their displeasure at her presence). However, I do worry about the chicks when they take their first flight. The canyon is narrow and steep here, with nothing but Splitrock Creek below. That first flight could be harrowing, and it could be difficult for the inexperienced chicks to avoid hitting the water below.
Canada Goose - Branta canadensis - nesting on cliff ledge
It’s not just the Great Horned Owl’s choice of nesting locations that brings some worry for the young. This is a Canada Goose who is also nesting on the cliff face. She is either the smartest goose on the planet, or one of the dumbest. Her rocky cliff ledge completely protects her from any ground predators she might otherwise have to deal with. However, her exact location…about 40 feet above the water on the cliff, and…20 feet DIRECTLY above the Great Horned Owl nest!! When the young hatch, they leave the nest almost immediately, and are tended to by the parents as they gather their own food. But “leaving the nest” in this case means making an already perilous jump to the creek below, one where the chicks have to worry about a bounce or two off the cliff face on their way down. Even more perilous for them…jumping down, and somehow avoiding the ledge and the Great Horned Owl nest right below them!

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