It has been no secret to my friends that ever since finding my first great horned owl on Assateague Island last fall that I made my mind up to search for a nest this spring. As a follower of who I consider to be one of Assateague’s greatest explorers that most of you will certainly recognize if you follow the Assateague Island Alliance page, I knew by reading Allen’s posts that great horned owls are hard to come by on the island.
I also knew that to be true by doing my own searching. I have seen in the last six months of hard searching four confirmed great horned owls. I saw possibly a fifth about a month ago, but as I think back on it I am not sure if it was a hawk or an owl. It fell out of a tree like I have seen owls do to gain speed and fly off, but l'm not sure I could confidently say which it was. I also have only been able to take one picture of a great horned owl which I posted last fall… they are masters of camouflage and so difficult to see. Usually when I do see them they are taking flight from a tree that is not far from me. They tend to sit until the last possible second that they feel threatened and then they are gone in an instant. I’m left thinking to myself how did I not see that sitting right there?
So, I put off the horses for a bit as I started really searching hard in late February and March for a nest. I felt confident with my sightings that I would come across one sooner or later as I just knew there had to be at least one nest I could find. Come hell or high water, I was going to find it... Well, easier said than done!
I'm happy to announce, though, that finally and just as I was ready to give up that just today right out of the blue my friends and I have finally found a nest with two owlets. It’s almost funny, I know we have walked under that nest for the last month or so and never saw it until today. In my defense, though, it was very difficult to see as it's at the very top and in the crown of a pine tree surrounded by upward arcing pine branches. It's also right in the developed area of the island right off one of the more popular trails. Who would really look right there? Simply unbelievable.
I honestly thought my best chance to find a nest would be somewhere secluded like in the area I found two great horned owls paired up together one evening back in late January and February. I’ve searched the area I had seen them but have not been able to find their nest. I’m sure it’s there somewhere, but where? They hide so well. Soon the owlets we just found will be fledging, though, and hopefully we will get a better look at them as they become active outside the nest.
One thing is for sure, I have certainly seen some beautiful areas of Assateague that I have never seen before during my pursuits. The walks through the woods have been mostly beautiful and peaceful. I say mostly because one wrong turn on a path has led me to some of the thickest, brushiest areas filled with jaggers and almost impassable pathways. Those bushes have left me with lots of scrapes as I slithered through them, under them or over them. Then there’s the waterways, especially the ones that are about 6-8 feet wide but deep enough that you just cannot cross. Sometimes I could walk around them and other times I just had to turn around and go back the way I came. And let’s not even mention the times you are walking along and your next step finds you sinking in knee or thigh deep mud and muck. I certainly have slung many, many swear words in my frustrations.
Then there are the times when I found myself walking through the most beautiful pine forests that I know have not seen the foot of man for many, many years if at all. Or the times I would be walking through a forest and then all of a sudden a small cut appears with the sun in the perfect position to just light the water up blue while the sun’s rays danced and glittered across the water’s surface. Those times find me thinking to myself just how gorgeous… sometimes there were no words, just the shaking of my head in awe. My walks in the woods may have been unsuccessful in their ultimate quest, but the experience has been truly wonderful. Assateague Island is a national seashore for a reason.
I’ve also come across other creatures such as turkeys, foxes and raccoons. One raccoon I came across ran into the marsh and into some high marsh grass to get away from me. As it was in the grass I could hear it in the water looking for food and I could see the tops of the grasses move. So, I stood off to the side of the grass and just waited. About 15 minutes later the raccoon peaked out of the grass and saw me. It froze for a second and then slowly backed it’s way back into the grass where it remained completely still. I couldn’t help but laugh, but since it was fearing for itself I left. I found an old horse skull on one of my treks that has been placed at 20+ years old by the NPS Biologist, and I found a separate horse skeleton that looked to be just as old on a different trek. Assateague is a truly wild place that I am going to thoroughly enjoy exploring during my retirement years which are also quickly approaching.
So the other morning I was browsing the internet when I came across a post from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County. I was very familiar with the area as I used to work road patrol in Dorchester County, but I can honestly say that I had not been to Blackwater for a couple of years. A trip to the ‘old country’ was long overdue so I figured, why not, especially since the post was about a very visible great horned owl’s nest.
I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to see the owlets so I decided to take half a day off work the next morning and slipped over to South Dorchester using all the backroads I used to patrol along. I forgot how truly beautiful the area was. Eagle after eagle was spotted with the most gorgeous, vast views across the marsh and bays. This scenery was quintessential Chesapeake Bay country, photogenic in every direction.
Before long I had found what I had been searching for on Assateague for months. I was finally looking at a great horned owl nest occupied by two owlets. And, in Blackwater-fashion, just down the way on the other side of the stand of pine trees surrounded by the marsh was an active bald eagle nest. Life certainly abounds in the marshes of Dorchester County.
The wind was howling on my first visit, and I didn’t stay long. Just long enough to get an image with which I was happy. The sun was shining and the sky was blue which made for a great image of the babies. Sure, it wasn’t Assateague, but the owlets were so very cool to see and a rare opportunity for me.
Once I got home I knew I had to go back and see them again. I waited for about a week before I made my second trip. Unfortunately it was a bit hazy which rendered the sky not nearly as blue as the first visit, but just in that week the owls had certainly grown. They had quite a few more ‘adult’ feathers, and I figured it wouldn’t be long before they embark on their own journeys.
I also stayed longer and met quite a few folks that were both local and from some distance away. Everyone I met was so nice… South Dorchester is filled with good folks. I also had an awesome conversation with a fella I now consider a friend, Lou. I hope your images turned out awesome Lou.
The visits back to Blackwater have been wonderful. While I love searching and hiking all over Assateague I realized there are other areas nearby that are just as worthy to explore. Take a look around you, and you might realize you have a treasure map nearby that is just waiting for you to get out there and explore.
Please enjoy the post and images.
See you next time…
~MP Mike

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