- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - Savannah’s best loved reality show is back. A great horned owl laid an egg in its nest high in a loblolly pine on Skidaway Island on Jan. 23 as two cameras live-streamed the event.

On Tuesday, owl watchers rooting for a second egg got their wish.

“I haven’t seen it yet, but we have egg number two,” said Rick Cunningham, a volunteer instrumental in keeping the project running.

The great horned owl is the most common large owl in North America. Its wings stretch 3 to 6 feet across, and from head to tail it can be 2 feet long; feather tufts on its head give it its name.

A pair of these majestic birds made this nest their home last year and raised two owlets under the watchful eye of the Savannah Bird Cam. Thousands of viewers - both local and from around the globe - were rapt by these raptors.

It’s uncertain whether the same pair of owls came back. The nest was previously occupied by bald eagles. Great horned owls don’t necessarily nest in the same place repeatedly.

“A lot of people on Facebook say ‘I recognize her,’ but that’s wishful thinking,” said Mary Lambright, a retired high school biology teacher who frequently monitors the video feed and manages The Landings Bird Cam Facebook page. “Yes, we think it’s probably the same bird, but we have no way of knowing.”

Lambright, who taught at Johnson High for 28 years, spotted the first egg at 9:07 a.m. on Jan. 23.

For a while it looked as if no birds would claim the nest as home this season. Bald eagles, ospreys and owls visited throughout the fall but didn’t stick around. The owls fell far behind last year’s schedule, which had the mama incubating on New Year’s Day. Then, earlier this month, a Skidaway resident found a dead great horned owl about a mile from the nest.

“Not a happy thing to hear!” Cunningham wrote in an email.

When a single owl subsequently visited the nest, owl watchers speculated the dead owl was the dad and the mama would be on her own raising owlets. But that’s not the case. The male has since made a few cameo appearances, in one case bringing a snack for his mate.

“There was only one prey transfer - when he brought that puny little lizard,” said Lambright, who thinks the owls may be dining in a nearby tree that offers better cover. The nest tree, which is dying from a beetle infection, lost some branches that used to provide protection.

Those watching can expect an even better experience than before. An approach camera that burned out early last year has been replaced. It allows a wide-angled, high definition, zoomable look at the birds coming in for a landing. A closer camera that not only zooms but also pans and tilts gives an up-close-and-personal experience. It’s also gyroscopically stabilized.

“It gives you a rock solid view even though the tree may be buffeted by high winds,” Cunningham said.

An infrared lamp on each camera allows nighttime viewing. But don’t worry; the birds can’t perceive infrared and clearly are not fussed about the cameras.

Viewers who want to recap the previous day’s activity can do so quickly with a three-minute time lapse video review posted each day.

The nonprofit Skidaway Audubon is the primary driver of the nest camera project. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is partnering with Skidaway Audubon, providing technical assistance and birding expertise.

The private California-based HDOnTap provides the live streaming and recordings. Others who contributed money or in-kind services this year include Coastal Conservation Association, Skidaway Chapter; Ogeechee Audubon; Wild Birds Unlimited Savannah; the Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association; The Landings Club; and The Landings Association.

With two eggs in the nest, the mama owl will be hunkering down now. The first egg should hatch around late February. Until then, it’s all eyes on the mama owl, an easy task.

“She is just drop dead gorgeous,” Lambright said.

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Information from: Savannah Morning News, https://www.savannahnow.com

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