Just east of Harry Houdini’s synagogue and the newspaper building Edna Ferber once roamed, a photogenic owl family has become Appleton’s newest Who’s hoo hoo hoooo.
Birders, photographers and curious wanderers flock to the park to study and capture the unusual scene. Science enthusiasts and small children study the pellets they leave behind. And, high above, in a stately old evergreen, a Great Horned Owl Patriarch intently surveys the scene.
Nearby, in the Air Bird & Breakfast they selected just for the occasion, the family’s Momager diligently trains three little owlets in the fine art of eating, flying and posing for the paparazzi.
How perfect that in these waning days of the school year, as so many parents are preparing their young people to leave the nest, they get to watch the owl family do the same. We have all learned so much.
For instance, I now know that Great Horned Owls are alpha owls, strong, vibrant and feared by their contemporaries. I know they prefer pre-fab nests — they generally don’t make their own. I have learned that those baby owls have big appetites and can eat up to 10 meals a day, which keeps their parents hopping (and keeps those poor, doomed city squirrels and bunnies hopping too).
I’ve learned how respectful humans can be when they know they’re witnessing one of nature’s magnificent gifts. Each time I’ve popped down to the park, I’ve seen small crowds of people murmuring amonst themselves and huddled a respectful distance from the owls.
The Audobon Society offers tips for watching and photographing owls in their natural habitat. They note that some owl species are more fragile than others and, thankfully, the Great Horned Owls are some of the heartiest.
Last time I checked on them, the fledglings had moved from their tree perch in the center of the park to a pine tree near a house, so I suspect those adorable owlets will be on their way to their own nests soon.
In the meantime, if you want to catch this fascinating scene, here are guidelines offered by the Audobon Society. Some of these get a little tricky when you consider an owl family that has taken up residence smack in the middle of a bustling downtown park, but we all do our best:
- Don’t get too close – if the owl looks at you frequently, you’re too close.
- Stay on “the sidelines” and don’t enter an open area where an owl is hunting.
- Use binoculars or a scope for viewing and a telephoto lens for photography.
- Use a blind to minimize your presence – your car or even just hide behind a tree.
- Do not intentionally “flush” an owl.
- Do not feed owls anything such mice, which may cause them to get used to people and can also result in collisions with cars and buildings.
- Avoid the use of flash photography, especially after dark.
- Eliminate noise to avoid interfering with a bird’s auditory hunting – if you’re viewing from a car, turn off the engine; if you’re with others, talk in a whisper only when necessary.
That fickle Wisconsin weather is not going to make it easy to observe the owls for the next few days, but, fortunately, their stay in Appleton has been well-documented. I’ve seen some amazing photos and I’m sharing four of them here, shot by Margie Murray Paffrath. The first three are the ones that inspired me to head down and take a peek at the owls myself. While I was there, I saw the photographer, with her tripod respectfully positioned behind a bench near the owl tree. That’s when she took the picture of the mom.
I took a couple of pictures as well, because the whole scene was so cool.