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March 8, 2010

I saw my first GHOst on the Equinox Preservation Trust in Manchester, VT. The sun had set behind 3800 feet of mountain and dusk had crept up on me. As I lumbered down the mountain through a stand of Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), I shuddered and felt a tingling sensation that cascaded from my head down through my legs. Out of the corner of my eye I watched a dark apparition float among the trees and disappear about fifteen feet off the ground. I let my eyes adjust to the waning light and tilted my head upwards. Perched on a pine bough was a GHO, aka a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). The bird bobbed its head to get a better view of me. After a few minutes it plunged silently from the pine and disappeared as quietly as it came. I continued to crash down the mountain as color faded to grays – humbled by the nocturnal skills of the owl.

While the conspicuous “ears” that distinguish Great Horned Owls from other owls are often confused as listening devices, the ears are strategically located beneath their feathers. Excellent hearing is required for GHOs considering that they hunt by sound. The quieter you fly, the better you can hear your prey.

Wave your hand quickly through the air. If you struck someone, move to an open space and try it again. Air that passes over your hand as you wave it creates a vortex that makes noise. When a GHO flies, the vortex is eliminated due to specialized feathers. Serrated edges on the first primary feather of each wing help cut the airflow over the wing which removes noise that might alert prey. How important is sound to a hunting bird? Listen the next time you see a bird fly. Vultures are quite noisy.

While walking in the woods near Naples, FL, I noticed a downy feather drop from the tree tops and float like a ghost to the pine needle covered ground. I peered up and sitting on a nest in the top of a Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii) was a GHO.

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