Great gray owl

A rare great gray owl was spotted in Price and Sawyer Counties for several days in December 2020. Every few years some of these owls head south from Canada’s boreal forest when their normal small rodent food source crashes, or becomes unavailable due to deep, crusty snow in their normal home range.

The last time I saw a great gray owl was back in the winter of 2004-2005. In fact, Mary Lou and I saw and photographed 43 of them on Jan. 4-5, 2005 in the great owl invasion of Northeastern Minnesota during that winter. Great gray owls could be seen every few miles along the North Shore of Lake Superior and especially in the Sax-Zim bog (https://saxzim.org/) area northwest of Duluth which is one of the state’s top birding areas.

Sax-Zim covers approximately 200 square miles and has long been known to birders as an excellent spot to see northern wildlife. The habitat consists of a mix of black spruce, tamarack, and northern white cedar bogs. During owl invasion years, it is a good place to look for great gray owls, hawk owls, and boreal owls. These owl species are driven south from Canada’s forests by a shortage of prey — primarily mice and voles due to either population crashes among these prey or simply they are out of reach under extremely deep and/or crusty snows in the Canadian north.

The Sax-Zim bog is a desolate area. I recall when we were there looking for owls during the owl invasion winter of 2004-2005, it was around -25 below Fahrenheit and we didn’t dare turn off our car engine for fear it wouldn’t start out in the middle of nowhere! However, we were rewarded by seeing several great gray owls and six hawk owls.

I place the owl invasion of 2004-2005 from Canada in the top three birding events of my life, the other two seeing three plus million flamingos in Kenya and hundreds of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska in the spring.

Memories of that Minnesota owl invasion quickly refreshed in my mind when I got a call from Sue Kartman in early December when a friend of hers reported that she saw a great gray owl in Price County and had a photo to prove it. I later found out that several had been seen in Northeastern Minnesota and at least seven in Wisconsin this winter. The thought crossed my mind that we might be on the verge of another owl invasion. Only the owls can tell if that will happen! The last great gray owl that I know of that was seen in Price County was in 1993 during the Fifield-Park Falls Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

I headed out to the wilds of Price County in search of ‘our’ great gray owl and I was fortunate to find and photograph it on three different occasions, Dec. 4, 17, and 28, the latter two times in nearby Sawyer County. I must say it was an exceptional privilege to spend some quality time with such a magnificent owl from the far north. The thrill of seeing one is related to its size, being among the largest owls in North America, its rarity, and its relative tameness.

Owls that nest in the boreal forests of Canada that come south into the United States for the winter are energetically sought after by birdwatchers. According to the American Birding Association, the great gray owl is the sixth most ‘wanted’ bird species on the continent and birders may travel hundreds of miles just to see. This unwanted attention may be to the detriment of the owl because it may disrupt its normal behavior stressing the owl and preventing it from successfully hunting.

Some great gray owls nest in the far northern bogs of Minnesota and a few nests have been documented in northern Wisconsin, but that is a rare occurrence. For those who would like to know more about this fascinating owl, I recommend two of my favorite books

The first one is by a friend of mine, Robert Nero who wrote the book, “The Great Gray Owl: Phantom of the Northern Forest” with photographs by Robert Taylor. He studied great gray owls for years along the Manitoba-Minnesota border. The second one is by Michael Quinton titled, “Ghost of the Forest: The Great Gray Owl.” For three nesting seasons, Michael gained the trust of the great gray owls of the northwest Rockies and surrounding forests and farmlands documenting their lives through all seasons with outstanding photography.

Because of limited space for this article, I can only highlight a few facts about this most interesting owl, so I will focus on its amazing hunting abilities.

Great grays are not difficult to spot. At first glance, the great gray owl looks like an enormous bird, but its bulk is made up largely of feathers, but remarkably it weighs only two to three pounds; females are bigger than males. It is big — up to 30 inches in length with a long tail about a foot long. They have round faces, yellow eyes, and black and white ‘bow-ties’ under their chins. It has a wingspan of up to five feet. Speaking of feet, their feet have very sharp talons to seize and kill their prey with the help of their beak.

Despite its large size, it concentrates on hunting relatively small rodents. Like other owls, great grays do hunt at night, but most of their hunting is done during the day, especially at dawn and dusk. Great gray owls prefer to hunt in relatively open country where scattered trees or forest edges provide suitable vantage points for listening and visual searching.

The great gray owl has a remarkable visual acuity. It can see a small rodent running at distances of up to 200 yards across the snow or dry ground. Even more remarkable, it can locate and capture live prey from deep within the snow by hearing its movements under the snow without even seeing its prey. They do this with the help of feathered dish ‘antennae’ around their yellow eyes that funnel sound waves into their ears. The right ear opening is slightly larger and higher than the left ear, allowing each to receive sounds with small differences of volume and angle. This tiny difference is enough to allow the owl to accurately triangulate on the sound’s location.

Once the prey is located, it drops down from its hunting perch and flaps its wings a few times to get moving. It then glides silently on its five-foot long wings to the identified target crashing through up to a foot of snow with its legs and sharp-taloned feet to grab an unsuspecting mouse or vole. Its silent, surprise attack is made possible by the fluffy fringe of unconnected barbs on its wing and tail feathers. This may be why this owl is sometimes called the ghost or the phantom of the forest. Sometimes the owl will hover almost motionless over the invisible prey undercover while precisely pinpointing it and then swiftly dropping down to catch it. Because the prey is usually small, they swallow it whole, head first. When these owls are nesting, the male does the hunting and the female tends to nest duties. The male brings prey to the nest and the female quickly snatches it from him feeding herself and the young, an amazing and successful division of duties.

When great gray owls visit us in the south, they have a habitat of hunting prey along road edges creating a hazard for themselves. There are few roads and vehicles in the far north where they come from and they are not used to competing with vehicles. Once owls focus on their prey and take off, they may not be aware of vehicles moving across their flight path. Vehicle collisions do occur often killing or injuring great gray owls, a leading cause of their mortality when they come south. So, be alert if you are driving in the known vicinity of owls. If you do stop to watch an owl hunting, turn your engine off so the noise doesn’t inhibit the owl’s hearing ability to catch its prey. I find it best, when possible, to use my vehicle as a blind while photographing.

After seeing and photographing a great gray owl this winter, I am already looking forward to the next time I can see one of these visitors from the far north as it is truly a special event.

I know most of you won’t be able to see a great gray owl, so I put together a three-minute video that includes some photos from the 2004-2005 owl invasion and the one spotted in Price and Sawyer Counties this year. You can enjoy the video at this YouTube link: https://youtu.be/EzJw5GQbzzI

(Copyright © 2021 APG Media)

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