It was time to revisit an area I had gone rockhounding in near the Chilcotin area where I had seen some lovely hawks & and my first Great Grey Owl last year. During my previous visit I had been searching for opal & agate on a steep rocky outcrop high above the logging road when I stopped & froze – I had that uncanny sense that I was being watched by someone. There, sitting just above eye level high up in a fir tree on the steep slope, were two intense looking bright yellow eyes framed by the large circular facial disc of a Great Grey Owl.
I gasped audibly, and the chill of this surprise encounter ran right through and down my spine. But the Great Grey Owl didn’t flinch. I would swear it was looking right through me! I quietly sat down and we looked at each other for quite some time. It didn’t move a feather. I had the feeling it was curious as to what this crippled old man with a wooden cane was doing, obviously in pain from chronic back issues, slowly inching his way up and down a very steep slope, stooping to pick up, then closely examine just about every rock on the hillside. Its intense stare & stoic demeanor seemed to be asking: “What the hec are you doing !?!” Its a question many people in the public ask us about rock hounding, and a question we rockhounds sometimes ask ourselves.
It was one of those briefly frustrating moments when you berate yourself for not having your camera. But the experience of us both just quietly looking into each others eyes; it curious, me, completely in awe of this enormous, unique and beautifully patterned owl, was a deeply connecting moment with a creature of the natural world that a camera cannot always bring-though we endeavor with such fervor to capture these experiences to share them with others. Quite moved by this grand encounter, I quietly left it’s area, respectful of it’s space. When I turned back to see the Great Wise One one final time, the ghostly apparition had vanashed as quickly as it had appeared…
Sadly, other than a single distant “whoo” once or twice throughout the week, I could not find the Great Grey again this year. But a Great Horned Owl was to make a very brief & special evening appearance, offering a unique & possibly first time set of recorded observations where Nighthawk behavior is concerned.
I observed 7 CONI call and gather before flying west to the Thompson River 10km away. 2 pair, one less than 50 meters away, the other about 100, did not join them, and were “peenting” and “booming” off and on for about 20 minutes after sunset. A Great Horned Owl began calling about 25 meters away up the hill from me which overlooks open grassland and Douglas Fir & Pine Forest. Half way through his second chorus of ho ho h’HOO hoo hoo, a female night hawk came whipping past across the line of site between myself and the owl, firing off an intense, higher-than-normal-pitch, rapid staccato of “peents” unlike any I have previously heard. The male boomed immediately after in the calling owls direction, and the third more distant male began booming in unison, a bit more distant.. This was clearly a group response to a predator. The owl left the area quickly and was not heard from or seen again. Are GHO’s a predator to nighthawks, or there young? I would think that the Common Nighthawk could outmaneuver a large owl, but there young could certainly be fair & easy game. An extremely interesting experience, and it was not to be the only one.
The following evening, at the same time and location, involving the same 2 pair of local CONI, a small Sharp Shinned Hawk landed on a fallen log 10 meters away. Within moments, the pair closest to me, and then the nearby other pair of nighthawks began a systematic circling of the hawk on the log. The female “peenting” in distress 25 meters away on one side, the male “wing booming” 25 meters away on the other. They circled him 3 times exhibiting this concerted defense before the other distant pair of CONI joined in on a coordinated effort of harassing the hawk! Terrorized, he ducked and flinched with every boom that was raining down on him. After the fifth circling, completely confused, and unable to visually hone in on who was coming from where, he quickly fled in fear ! I’ve not yet read or heard of this kind of organized behavior, but it may exist out there.. It was darn exciting to see that my, until now, peaceful, seemingly gentle little CONI friends are able to put on such a fierce organized defense display against what is thought to be 2 superior predators. YES!! How exciting is that!?!