Highland Lakes is home to night life such as the great horned owl
MARBLE FALLS — Jeff Downing admits his knowledge about nocturnal birds of prey is only based on what he’s “heard.”
“I’m a semi-insomniac. I’m up at 2 o’clock in the morning,” said Downing, who lives in Marble Falls. “I’ll sit out there on the porch. You can hear them communicating off in the distance.”
The deep, low-pitched hooting calls he described are likely great horned owls, which pick areas of the Highland Lakes as a nesting ground in January and February.
Their sounds can inspire romance among males and females of the species or signify competition over territory.
“It’s really amazing we have them right in our own backyard,” said Jeff’s wife, Golden Downing.
The voracious, nighttime hunter typically watches in silence and listens for prey before snatching up creatures such as mice, snakes, lizards and its favorite delicacy — skunks.
Other owls that make Central Texas their home are the Eastern screech owl, the barred owl and the barn owl.
“I wish people would consider giving them the respect that they should,” Jeff Downing said. “They’re more necessary than we are for the balance of nature.”
The Downings shared their fascination of the great horned owl with their granddaughter, Rhiannon Downing, during the recent Birds of Prey demonstration hosted by Doris Mager at Inks Lake State Park.
Mager is the founder of Save Our American Raptors, or SOAR.
One of her demonstrations involved “E.T.” (Extra Terrific), a great horned owl, gliding down the aisle of the audience to find its perch at the front of the room.
“The wing tip brushed my shoulder,” Jeff Downing said. “If it hadn’t been for the air I felt, you wouldn’t have noticed it was flying by. If you just watch it, you get a much better feel for why it is such a fantastic hunter.”
During the demonstration “Tex” the Eastern screech owl, a more petite member of the species that is known for its high-pitched shuddering sound, impressed the younger Downing, who appeared transfixed along with the rest of the audience by the bird’s hypnotic gaze.
“They have big eyes,” Rhiannon said. “I like the owl, because you don’t know when they’re coming.”
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Doris Mager, the founder of Save Our American Raptors, educates the crowd about Tex, an Eastern screech owl, during a demonstration on birds of prey at Inks Lake State Park in Burnet on Jan. 5. The Eastern screech owl is typically heard but not seen and can be recognized by its haunting, shuddering call that has a high-pitched, whiny quality. Staff photo by Connie Swinney
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Inks Lake State Park Ranger Sean Jones (right) assists Doris Mager, the founder of Save Our American Raptors, with E.T. (Extra Terrific), a great horned owl, during a demonstration Jan. 5 at the park. Staff photo by Connie Swinney
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E.T. the great horned owl takes part in a demonstration on birds of prey Jan. 5 at Inks Lake State Park in Burnet. The great horned owl is one of three species of owls that makes the Highland Lakes its home. Staff photo by Connie Swinney
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Inks Lake State Park hosts hiking tours known as Owl Prowls that are aimed at catching a glimpse of the nocturnal creatures after dusk in the park, 3630 Park Road 4 in Burnet. The hikes are scheduled month to month. For more, go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/inks-lake.
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• The great horned owl has a large array of calls, from deep, booming hoots to shrill shrieks. During mating or as a territorial warning sound, it has a distinctive deep, low-pitched hooting call. Other sounds include a cat-like “meow,” barks and coos.
• The Eastern screech owl is recognized by its haunting, shuddering sound that has a high-pitched, whiny quality. Females might bark or hoot when defending their nests.
• The barred owl is a highly vocal species that calls in the daytime and at night. The “hoos” are often heard in a series of eight, then silence, as it listens for a reply.
• The barn owl’s usual call is a drawn-out rasping screech. The male’s courting call is a shrill, repetitive twittering, while an adult returning to its nest gives a low, frog-like croak. When it’s surprised, it can make hissing and rasping noises.
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• Great horned owls are the largest of the four species found in Central Texas and can grow to 2 feet and weigh about 3 pounds. Other local owls are the Eastern screech owl, the barred owl and the barn owl.
• Great horned owls are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Fines are up to $500 for attempting to “imprint” or domesticate the bird.
• Skunks are the favorite meal of great horned owls.
• Great horned owls have few natural predators. They often fight their own species or the northern goshawks for available nesting sites.
• The species lives up to 13 years in the wild and 28 years in captivity.
• The so-called “nest” is almost completely comprised of a tree cavity.