O Tis an Owlet

Jenny Scarborough

A pair of great horned owls have built their nest near the ORV permit office.

Ferry Division worker Sharon Justice, arriving before dawn for shifts, first noticed the raptors around Easter. When the owls began swooping on people, Park Service employees knew chicks had hatched, said NPS Lead Biological Technician Jocelyn Wright.

Photo courtesy of Robert Karg

Great horned owls have been heard and seen at Springer's Point, Hammock Hills, and around the Pony Pens, but "it's funny that they picked this place in the village" to nest, said Wright.

The area around the nest has been roped off, and both DOT and NPS workers are keeping an eye on the family. The owlets are gaining proficiency at flying, and are believed to be about six weeks old. So far, only one owlet at a time has been spotted, and it is unclear how many chicks are in the nest. Two to three would be a common brood, though there could be up to five.

The owlets will stay with their parents for up to a year. Larger birds take better care of their chicks, said Wright.

Head down base at dawn or dusk for your best bet of catching the nocturnal creatures in flight. Respect the caution tape that affords the family some privacy.

Although the nest is in an exposed area, it is "incredibly well concealed," said avid birder Peter Vankevich. "Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems [Ocracoke's] great horned owl population has been increasing in the last several years."

The year round residents need a certain amount of territory to support their diet of small rodents. At a certain point, the island "can't keep sustaining additional birds," said Vankevich, who speculates that this nesting pair may have fledged elsewhere on the island and moved to less prime owl real estate than their parents.

The young have a beautiful screech, said Vankevich. When the parents head out looking for food the owlets practice flying, and use their voices to keep mom and dad apprised of their location.

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