Whoooo’s up there?

On a woodland hike in early February my family discovered a great horned owl nest. We stopped to search the treetops after hearing two owls hooting back and forth. One owl flew away in a presumed attempt at distraction. While scanning the canopy we noticed a second owl. She was peeking over the edge of a nest at least 60 feet above us! As soon as the nest was spotted, we gave the surprised owls some space. After a month of watching these two owls from afar, I decided to take my voyeurism to the next level.

At work, a set of motion-detection cameras is used every autumn to survey the mesocarnivore populations in Lake County, Illinois. The rest of the year these cameras just sit in the lab on a shelf. It didn’t take much begging to get the forestry crew excited about the prospect of climbing a tree for me. We chose a tree next to the nest that would provide a good view of the nest. One rainy Friday (the only break during controlled burn season) a professional tree climber headed up to install two cameras. I equipped them with 16 GB memory cards and eight AA batteries in hopes that would be enough “juice” to last the full nesting season. I don’t want to climb up and down to empty the cameras, as that might cause undue stress to the owl family. The cameras use infrared technology and won’t disturb the owls but will provide some fun shots of the owlets developing. I set up four cameras—three for stills and one for videos—at ground level surrounding the owls’ tree. I hope these cameras will record footage during the owlets’ brief flightless stage on the ground.

From the ground, a viewing scope and photos from generous volunteer photographers with long lenses will be the only way to watch this owl family. In the meantime, the motion-detection cameras at ground level are providing other entertaining wildlife footage.

If you’re interested in watching the owls progress, a colleague and I created a Nature Cam page for the Lake County Forest Preserves website. Highlights so far: up-close and personal footage of a raccoon investigating a camera, ghost-like images of animals running through a dark forest, myriad squirrels searching for their caches, and a random hiker wearing no socks, pants a couple of sizes too small, a backpack and rubber gloves. Yes, rubber gloves. I’m puzzled. I didn’t share that one on the Nature Cam site, but you can view the other wildlife highlights.