Twenty-four years ago, in June of 1986, I photographed a spotted owl nest in Tenaya Canyon beyond Mirror Lake. I had found the nest in May by looking and listening in likely habitats. At dusk one evening, in perfect spotted owl habitat—shady, old-growth forest of Douglas fir and white fir, with a dense understory of oaks, maples, and dogwoods—I heard a series of hoots. This wasn’t their distinctive “barking” call, but was clearly an owl.
The next evening I returned to this area and found a likely nesting spot, a hollow cavity about 30 feet up in a black oak. I heard another call I didn’t recognize, a rising whistle. Could this be a spotted owl? Zeroing in on the sound I saw my first spotted owl about 40 feet up in Douglas fir. I heard more whistles and found another, larger adult nearby. Eventually I saw this larger owl—presumably the female, since female owls are larger than males—fly to that cavity in the oak, confirming the nest site.
Being young and ambitious I tried to figure out a way to photograph the nest. I couldn’t capture good images from the ground, so I used some of my rock-climbing equipment to scale a neighboring incense cedar. Nearing the top of this small tree I felt a sharp whack on the back of my head. I looked around and saw the female owl perched on another tree, glaring at me, and realized that she had hit me. Birds of prey like hawks and owls are known to defend their nests against human intruders by swooping down and hitting them with their feet or talons, but I had read in the Audubon Encyclopedia of Birds that spotted owls never do this. (Note to all authors of books about natural history: avoid the words “never” or “always.”) I didn’t hear her coming because owls are silent flyers.
The owl seemed to calm down, and returned to her nest. That same encyclopedia also said that spotted owls are usually unafraid of people, and that seemed to be true. I got my first glimpse of the two young owlets, but the swaying top of my small tree was too unsteady a platform for sharp photographs.
Two days later I climbed a different tree, a tall Douglas fir on the other side of the nest. She hit me again, then left me alone. From this steadier platform I got a few decent photos, and left a rope, intending to return the next morning.
Ascending the rope the next day she hit me yet again. Luckily, as with the previous assaults, she kept her talons closed, so the blow smarted but didn’t cause any serious damage. I continued upward. In hindsight this was rather foolish.
As I settled into position I felt another blow on the back of my head, but this one was much more painful. I felt liquid on my neck and realized I was bleeding. Apparently the mother owl had used her talons this time.
I found myself 30 feet up a tree with my head bleeding profusely. I took off my shirt and pressed it against the back of my head, and the bleeding gradually subsided. I didn’t bother trying to take photographs—I just descended as quickly as possible.
Luckily I sustained no lasting damage, and returned to the nest two days later. In the interval the owlets had fledged, and were hanging out on branches a few feet above the ground. Their mom joined them (see the photo at the top). I could almost walk up and touch them. The mom seemed unconcerned about my presence now, despite the fact that I got closer than ever to her babies, and I suffered no more blows to the head.
Near dusk that evening the larger of the two owlets scrambled up the sloping side of a large boulder, vigorously flapping its down-covered wings. Upon reaching the summit it walked to the edge of the the boulder above a 20-foot drop, then hopped-flapped out to a tree branch.
The other, smaller owlet followed its sibling up the boulder, walked out to the same edge, and attempted the same feat. But it missed the branch, fell about five feet, tried to grab anything available, and ended up hanging upside down from another branch. It probably couldn’t hear me laughing because it was flapping its wings so hard. Its attempts to right itself failed, so it had to let go, parachute down to the ground—with more frantic flapping—and try again. By then it was getting dark and I had to leave, so I missed the conclusion to this evening of comedy.
Soon the owlets could fly well enough to reach higher branches. They roamed further from the nest, and I lost track of them. But despite the blows to my head I have fond memories of these birds, and of the hours I spent quietly watching them in their deep forest home.