This is the latest in our “Discover the Boise Foothills” series of blog posts exploring different trails. On many of those trips, we’ll be joined by an expert who can provide some perspective on the land that has become one of Boise’s most popular and valuable assets.
This week: The Hulls Gulch owls
If you’re planning to go out to Hulls Gulch to see this year’s baby great horned owls, you’ll need some inside information.
Fortunately, I had Jessie Sherburne — a science lecturer at Boise State who holds a master’s degree in raptor biology. Sherburne went out to scout the owls a week before our visit to Hulls Gulch and learned from a friend that the resident pair of great horned owls had moved this spring. She spread the word to two other people we ran into who were looking for the owls but didn’t realize they had moved.
The owls, long nestled among a string of cavities in the red cliffs to the west of 8th Street (a spot marked by an interpretive sign along The Grove trail), established their nest this year a little farther north along 8th Street in a different section of the cliff. From the parking lot at the Hulls Gulch Trailhead, walk back along the road 30-40 yards and you’ll have a nice view of the nesting cavity (scroll to the second photo at the top of this post for detail). You might catch a glimpse of one of the owlets in the cave.
But that’s not the only place to look.
When we visited on Tuesday, two of the owlets had left the nest to begin exploring and learning to live in the outside world. They were hanging out in a tree about 100 yards south of the nest, cuddled next to each other, occasionally flapping a wing, yawning or turning their bodies for a new view. At least one more owlet was visible in the nest and came out to the “door” so we could get a good look through binoculars.
We didn’t see the adults.
There’s a railing and a pond between the road and the owls, creating a natural barrier.
“It’s amazing that they’re out,” Sherburne said. “... Binoculars are a great way to observe without causing an impact.”
The two owlets that have left the nest likely will remain outside. The adults will feed them and keep a watchful eye on them, Sherburne said.
“Once they’re fledged, they don’t really have a lot of reason to go back to the nest,” she said. “They can locate perches around the area — it gives them a little more space and then they can start to figure out how things work being somewhat independent. But it will be a couple more weeks before they’re flying much.”
So how did the babies get to their perch? That trip probably involved some flying, falling and scurrying along the ground. It happened sometime between May 10 and Tuesday because they were in the nest when Sherburne visited last week.
“I think it would have been a pretty shaky flight,” she said.
The male adult owl (scroll to the third photo above) is light gray in color. Our photo is from a visit to Hulls Gulch in early March, when he made a habit of lounging in the evergreen trees at the nearby Foothills Learning Center. The female is redder in color. This is believed to be her second year in Hulls Gulch, Sherburne said. The previous female was a different color.
The babies have a sandy appearance — so much so that they nearly blended into the hillside behind them while perched in the trees. Sherburne compares the babies to teddy bears.
“They’re all fluffy with these rounded ears,” she said.
Great horned owls are active at dawn and dusk. They “loaf” — or roost in trees — during the day, trying to stay out of sight of other birds that don’t want them in the area.
Raptors have a mortality rate of 80-plus percent in their first year, Sherburne said. The owlets will learn how to hunt from their parents.
“If they don’t get the hunting down, they starve,” she said.
Getting there: Follow 8th Street north from Downtown Boise. Continue onto the dirt road for a short distance. Park at the Hulls Gulch Trailhead, adjacent to the Foothills Learning Center.
Up next: Daniels Creek (Peggy’s Trail) — and the private-property agreements that have made the Foothills trail system possible.