An adult great horned owl perches with its young in a tree in Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Spinney

There’s something magical about stepping outside at 6 in the morning to the sound of a great horned owl. Adding to the mystique, the hooting was just outside my log cabin, a cabin named Partridge Chalet at Big Machias Lake Camps. Never mind that this magical brush with nature was triggered by the necessity of a predawn trip to the outhouse. It was still magical.

Owls start their mating season early, and great horned owls start earliest. By starting early, owls get the jump on the competition. Great horned owls often steal the nests of ospreys, red-tailed hawks and great blue herons before the rightful owners return in the spring.

An early start is also essential for successful chick-raising. Large predators typically need more time to incubate. Bald eagles, which also start early, need more than a month before the chicks hatch. Then, the youngsters remain up to three months before they’re ready to leave the nest.

Great horned owl chicks spend a month in the egg, then another 42 days in the nest before fledging. Barred owls follow the same timetable, though the total time in nest is shorter by a handful of days. Our tiny northern saw-whet owls incubate for nearly a month, then linger in the nest for another month before fledging.

If all goes according to plan, owlets will be at their hungriest when prey is at its most plentiful. The nestlings must be strong and well-developed by the time they leave the nest if they are to become successful hunters, hence the need to start breeding season early.

If things don’t go according to plan, eagles and the larger owls don’t re-nest. The season is lost. Northern saw-whet owls might have time to give it a second try, but it’s rare.

Thus, eagles and owls start very early, spend a long time on the nest, and need the assurance of an ample food supply of prey species once the eggs finally hatch. My outhouse owl was hooting and hollering while it was still January. Barred owls will start up the chorus soon. There will still be snow on the ground when northern saw-whet owls return to Maine in March, and their courtship tooting begins.

Big Machias Lake Camps joins my list of favorite sporting camps. Named after the lake they abut, the log cabins lie 21 miles west of Ashland on the American Realty Road. It’s not just the splendid hospitality of Jeff and Corey Lavway that attracted me. It’s the exceptional bird habitat.

From Ashland to Clayton Lake, not far from the Canadian border, the American Realty Road is a diverse set of birding hotspots. One mile might be full of spruce and fir, the next beech and maple, then birch and aspen. There are plentiful lakes and streams, and the Allagash Wilderness Waterway runs right through it. With every small change in habitat, the mix of species changes.

For less experienced birders, forest roads are a treasure hunt. Many different birds are hidden, waiting to be found. For more experienced birders, it’s a treasure map. You can look at the winter trees and anticipate which birds will be where come nesting season.

I’d guess it was about 33 years ago that my wife and I launched a canoe at the outlet of Big Machias Lake and paddled a Memorial Day current through 31 miles of almost constant rapids. I remember two things vividly: the almost continual whitewater, and the sound of so many Wilson’s snipe doing their winnowing courtship dances high in the sky at dusk.

I must say that the north woods are abnormally quiet this winter. Last October, I reported big flocks of chickadees and nuthatches heading south. In one instance at Schoodic Point, there were 300 chickadees in a single flock. Many migrated down from Canada, but it now seems apparent that lots of Maine birds joined the exodus, too. I’ve received many reports from loyal readers that they’re not getting their usual numbers at the feeders, either.

So even our year-round local birds may yearn to be somewhere south in winter. The truth is, humans and birds can fly anywhere they want to — that is, unless they’re booked on Southwest Airlines. For a long time, it seemed like our summer birds flew south for the winter, but our year-round birds stayed home. Now it’s clear that even chickadees may leave.

But the owls are hooting, the days are lengthening, our birds will return soon, and all is right with the world.

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Bob Duchesne, Good Birding

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at He can be reached at