When I first saw Mark Glenshaw, he was already watching me. I was trudging up a steep hill toward my truck in St. Louis’ Forest Park after discovering a great horned owl’s nest with three fluffy nestlings, all alert and curious. As I reached the parking lot near the World’s Fair Pavilion, Mark approached me in the manner of a park ranger and introduced himself as an amateur naturalist who monitored the great horned owls of Forest Park. He further informed me with utmost courtesy that I had already been a bit too close to the nest.
Although it has been almost 10 years since we met, Mark and I remain close friends. He continues to monitor the owls of Forest Park and educate park visitors about their life histories. I love how he engages people, especially children, with lively owl stories, and conducts field dissections of regurgitated pellets to reveal what owls had eaten. If the subject turns toward nesting, Mark often carries an artificial great horned owl egg to the delight of his audience.
My encounter with Mark and the great horned owl’s nest that afternoon in Forest Park began a decade of observing and photographing birds of prey (owls, hawks, eagles, falcons, kites, and ospreys) in the urban landscape of St. Louis and its surrounding communities. The next morning, I returned with my camera to discover one of the nestlings sitting on a branch with its parent. It had fledged overnight and I was thrilled to capture its image, finally free from the confines of its nest of the past six weeks. Yep, I was hooked!
So why are birds of prey attracted to St. Louis and other big cities? St. Louis is rich with historic parks, including its crown jewel, Forest Park. These parks have an abundance of mature trees, perfect for large, stick-built nests of red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks, as well as the smaller nests of Mississippi kites. As they age, many of those same trees provide nesting cavities for American kestrels, barred owls, screech owls, and often great horned owls. Another attraction is the prevalence of tall pine trees and other conifers where birds of prey, particularly great horned owls, can rest securely among sheltering branches, especially in winter.
The towering trees of St. Louis’ parks and neighborhoods are only part of the story. The other part is easy access to food. Often beneath those inviting trees is open ground, typically mowed, which abounds with squirrels, rabbits, and other prey. Few creatures are completely safe from the talons of a great horned owl.
I’m often asked if owls and hawks stay in the city after they fledge and go out on their own. My reply, often prefaced by, “I’m not an expert,” is that some of them stay around the city for another year or more while others expand their range to new locations farther away. I’m confident that many city birds later become country birds as they explore their new world. During my years photographing birds of prey in St. Louis, I have been impressed with the way they bring people together. Everywhere I go, especially when I’m toting my 500 mm lens and tripod, people approach me, ascertain what I’m looking for, and begin sharing stories about their own encounters with urban birds of prey. Others join in and camaraderie ensues, regardless of background. I consider this one of the many benefits we receive from these charismatic birds of the city.
Here you will find a sample of the birds of prey I have encountered in and around St. Louis. It is not an exhaustive list, but more of a highlight reel from my time spent in this compelling landscape.
- A barred owl with its young in a backyard in Chesterfield. This image was captured in 2011 when we had an exceptional emergence of cicadas. I watched this barred owl family gorge on the noisy insects each day. Like most birds of prey, barred owls are opportunistic feeders. Barred owls are typically found in densely forested areas with a stream nearby, so they are not commonly spotted in manicured parks.
- Ospreys visit St. Louis during their spring and fall migrations. They are sometimes observed fishing at Forest Park’s Grand Basin. I photographed this individual over the Meramec River in St. Louis County.
- This bald eagle spent several days in Forest Park one winter, snatching ducks and fish from the waterway beneath its favorite perch.
- A very young great horned owl sits at the base of a cypress tree in Tower Grove Park following an all-night rain. The owl’s camouflage reduced its exposure to predators, but I couldn’t resist returning that afternoon to check on it. I was relieved to find it high overhead on a tree branch next to one of its parents.
- A Cooper’s hawk consumes a bird for breakfast in Lafayette Park. Street lights not only provide an excellent perch for scouting but also a great platform for eating.
- A red-tailed hawk surveys its habitat from the clock tower above the Forest Park Visitor and Education Center. Man-made structures often provide an unrestricted view of prey below.
- A red-tailed hawk with one of its nestlings high in a pine tree in Tower Grove Park. Shortly after I made this image, the other parent arrived with breakfast for the nestlings, a baby robin that it had snatched from a nest.
- Mississippi kites can be found all around the city of St. Louis in both neighborhoods and parks. The easiest time to spot them is when they congregate in late summer in roosting trees. Kites often nest high in neighborhood trees where they are imperceptible to most residents. Small in stature, kites can pluck a dragonfly out of mid-air. I photographed this one in Tower Grove Park.
- Short-eared owls are not considered city birds, but they are sometimes found hunting wide open areas around St. Louis in winter. I received a tip one year that several of them were perching on dumpsters during the day at a production facility near the airport. They are often observed in winter just outside the city at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary and a bit farther away at B.K. Leach Memorial Conservation Area (CA) in Lincoln County, where I photographed this individual.
- I photographed this pair of great horned owl nestlings in Tower Grove Park the day before they fledged. On the evening after they left the nest, their nest tree was knocked down in a powerful storm. Concerned for their health, I searched the park the next day and found them on a branch of a nearby tree, their parents watching from afar.
- In winter, eastern screech owls are often found in south-facing tree cavities so they can soak up the sun’s warmth. Although screech owls are common in parts of St. Louis, I photographed this one at nearby Shaw Nature Reserve in a south facing sycamore cavity.
- Red-shouldered hawks are not as citified as red-tailed hawks. They tend to be in more wild areas where barred owls are found, usually with a stream nearby where they can hunt for frogs and salamanders, their preferred prey. I caught this red-shouldered hawk feeding on spring peepers at Shaw Nature Reserve near St. Louis.
- Winter is a great time to watch for urban birds of prey because they are easier to find in the trees. This red-tailed hawk was hunkered down during a snowstorm in Forest Park.
- Snowy owls are often found in open areas such as airports in northern cities. Occasionally a few drop south to Missouri in late winter, so there is always a chance you could see one in or near St. Louis. I photographed this one last winter at B.K. Leach Memorial CA, about an hour from St. Louis.
- Missouri’s tiny falcon, the American kestrel, perched along a popular hiking/biking trail in Forest Park. I was surprised that this male maintained its position while I retrieved my camera from my car several hundred yards away on the other side of a creek.