This spring I have been fortunate to accompany a fellow naturalist and dedicated birder on a number of early morning strolls through the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. Founded in 1831, Mount Auburn has the distinction of being America's oldest, large-scale designed landscape open to the public. A burial ground amidst an arboretum,its carefully curated 175 acres are planted with an impressive horticultural collection representing 630 distinct taxa, many ornamental; thoughtful paths wind carefully through wooded dells and around neatly kept ponds; and stunning monuments in unusual and ornate carving seem like so many natural objects in such a perfectly manicured world. After it's inception, the Mount Auburn experience was so beloved that it sparked a movement of rural, "garden" cemetery design, and eventually inspired the establishment of our tremendous national parks. It's a breathtakingly beautiful place to visit, especially in the spring and fall months, when it's abundance of showy trees is flowering profusely, or blending into the firey hues of autumn.
The lush landscape of Mount Auburn is also a haven for wildlife, and as it pertains to birds, it is a migrant magnet; at certain times of year, extended-stay inhabitants like turkeys, great blue herons and cardinals mingle with colorful flocks of migratory song birds like warblers and thrushes, making the cemetery a prime destination for birders. A profuse population of chipmunks, squirrels, cottontails, and other rodents also attract a number of raptor species, who both hunt and nest among the headstones. This spring, to the immense joy of all who visit Mount Auburn - binoculars in hand - in hopes of catching a glimpse of feathered rarities, a pair of great horned owls decided to raise a family smack in the middle of the grounds.
One of the largest and most common of the North American owl species, great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) are roughly 18-25" in length and have a wingspan of up to 60". Their "horns", or "ears" are neither horns nor ears but simply long tufts of feathers, and they have absolutely nothing to do with the bird's hearing. The birds are primarily solitary creatures, coming together in January and February to mate and raise young, though the same pair will reunite for up to 8 consecutive years. Great horned owls do not build their own nests, seeking instead established platforms like tree hollows, shallow caves, abandoned buildings, or often, and in this case, the abandoned nests of squirrels. This particular pair found a rather impressive roost - a thick bed of leaves and spiky sticks - in the crook of a thorny honey locust tree. The nest (and it's inhabitants) is impeccably camouflaged, but fortunate for all spectators, it sits only about 20 feet up, offering an unusually close view of mum and her downy brood. Once discovered in April, it drew a fast following of fanciers and photographers - apparently this is the first successful nesting of great horned owls recorded in the cemetery - and eventually groundskeepers had to erect a perimeter of police tape, to keep an eager public from disturbing the birds (or perhaps becoming the targets for aggressive territorial owl behavior). At this point, one can easily find the nest by looking for the dedicated huddle of it's watchers, and following the angle of their long-lenses up into the tree.
Having only ever seen live owls of this species in wildlife rehabilitation centers, I will tell you - observing them in their environment is beyond compare, they are magnificent animals. Watching the progress of this family - the two youngsters have about another week before they fledge - has been a rare and delightful treat, and very much worth the dawn treks (even though this illustrator much prefers the nocturnal working hours of owls...).
Above: momma great horned owl and her two downy white owlets at about 2 weeks old.
Below: a painting of the owlets at about 7 weeks old - young of this age are known as "branchers" for their interest in toddling out of the nest to stretch their wings and explore; a few views through cemetery spring blossoms; the owlets again at about 7 weeks (photo by Wenfei Tong); and another of Mount Auburn's larger avian inhabitants - a chuffed wild turkey making his morning rounds.