With a fresh coat of snow on the ground, gusty arctic winds blowing, and temperatures on some days only reaching into the 20s, it’s hard to imagine that any wild animal is thinking of raising a family during the deep freeze of winter. But as Lord Byron, the famous and flamboyant Anglo-Scottish poet and politician of the Romantic era once declared, “What a strange thing is the propagation of life!”
At night, listen for the deep wooing sounds of courting Great horned owls. No matter the temperature outside, males are calling for females. Great horned owls are one of the earliest birds to start breeding in the northeast. Courtship often begins in mid- to late December and is usually in full swing come January.
To find a female, a male great horned owl will first choose a nest site. These birds are large aggressive creatures that do not make their own nests. In fact, they make little if any efforts to construct an intricate nest or even repair an existing one, as many other birds do.
Instead great horned owls prefer to take over an existing nest made by a hawk, especially red-tailed hawks, or a crow, a great blue heron, or other large bird made the previous year. They don’t seem picky at all. Last year I found a great horned owl nesting atop a tall osprey platform in the middle of a tidal wetland near Raritan Bay.
Nesting pairs of great horned owls around the harbor are active in the woodlands of Staten Island. Pairs of owls have also been seen roosting in Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Forests and woodlots in Monmouth and Middlesex counties in New Jersey provide good habitat for owls to nest as well.
Once a male owl has found the perfect nest, he will then attempt to attract a female by frequent hooting. According to Audubon.org, the nocturnal serenade sounds something like this - a series of low, far-carrying hoots, ho hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo, with second and third notes shorter than the others.
If a male catches the fancy of a female, they seal the deal by both bowing and hooting at each other. Usually females have a higher pitch and an extra note in the beginning of a call. The birds will remain mating partners for years or even the rest of their lives.
By February, most great horned owls are incubating eggs and are no longer hooting it up at night. A hooting call, though, may still be heard now and then to defend territory.
Yet, owls are not the only big birds with love on their minds during winter. Love is in the air for Bald Eagles too.
Although many bald eagle pairs around the harbor typically start laying eggs in February, courtship rituals and nest building often kick off in January.
Courtship activities for bald eagles tend to be more about males proving they are healthy and hardy. Males do not really have to prove they are mighty hunters, since each parent hunts by themself and for their young.
Most adult bald eagles are monogamous for life, but they still need to renew their wedding vows every winter. It often starts with bald eagles performing a high-altitude aerial display or “dance” that is incredible to watch. Occasionally, the talons of both eagles will lock briefly, causing both birds to spiral downward in a cartwheeling or roller coaster motion. Sometimes this cartwheeling motion can take place between two males when defending a territory or from some other form of aggression.
Other less-aggressive pair-bonding displays, though, can be observed including a male eagle perched beside a female. Both will stroke each other’s bill or preen each other’s feathers.
One of favorite pair-bonding activities to watch is when a female bald eagle, which is usually slightly taller than a male, will find a small stick to fly with in her talons. At some point she will drop the stick to see if the male can catch it with his talons. If he does then the female eagle will find a larger stick and fly with it much higher. Each time the male eagle must catch the stick. They will repeat this activity it seems until the female can no longer find any larger sticks to pick up or fly any higher.
Once they have renewed their bond, both eagles will get busy repairing the same nest used the previous year. Bald eagles build the largest nest of any North American bird. The nest may be as large as 8 ft. across and weigh as much as one ton. Nests are built in tall trees of sticks, and each year the eagle pair adds new branches and other vegetation to create a safe and comfortable home for their young.
Around New York Harbor, a safe and comfortable nesting site in a tall tree is scarce real estate. Yet the bald eagle population seems to be ever so slowly increasing. In New Jersey, there are several around Monmouth and Middlesex counties, and even nesting eagles in the highly urbanized environments of Linden and Kearny. New York City has one nest located on Staten Island.
Bald eagles often build their nests in very large trees near the water along the edge of a forest, so they can fly to and from the nest without having to fly through a canopy of trees. Yet, beggars cannot always be choosers. There is one pair of adult eagles in the harbor nesting atop an osprey platform.
This winter if you spot a great horned owl or bald eagle, remember to keep your distance and use binoculars or a spotting scope for viewing. The closer you get, the more undue stress you put on these majestic animals. Let’s keep our small owl and eagle population around New York Harbor happy and healthy for future generations of people to enjoy.