Photographed in Yellowstone National Park in 2001 on Provia color slide film with a Nikon N90s and Nikkor 500mm f/4.
It was late in the day and I had stopped along the Firehole River to watch a herd of elk move into a field. I turned to get back in my rental car and looked up. There he was looking at me. I quickly braced the big lens against the roof of the car and fired off a couple shots and poof, he was gone, not making a sound. I didn't know if I had a photo of him or not. The N90s does not have a preview LCD screen. I could only hope. The slide is not as sharp as I would like but it's the only one I have of this magnificent animal.
The Great Gray Owl is a dapper owl dressed in a gray suit with a bow tie across its neck and a surprised look on its face. In the stillness of a cold mountain meadow the elusive giant quietly floats on broad wings across meadows and openings in evergreen forests. They are mostly owls of the boreal forest with small populations in western mountains, but in some years they move farther south in search of food, giving some a unique opportunity to see this majestic owl.
Although the Great Gray Owl is one of the tallest owls in the U.S., it’s just a ball of feathers. Both the Great Horned Owl and Snowy Owl weigh more than a Great Gray Owl and they have larger feet and talons.
Great Gray Owls aren’t just North American owls. They also live in Scandinavia, Russia, Siberia, and Mongolia.
Great Gray Owls are powerful birds. Despite weighing only 2.5 pounds, they can break through hard packed snow to grab a small mammal. One bird reportedly broke through snow that was hard enough to support a 176-pound human.
Great Gray Owls are big owls, which means that they need to eat regularly. In the winter, they eat up to 7 vole-sized small mammals every day.
Both the common and scientific names are apt for this large gray owl. The Latin name for Great Gray Owl is Strix nebulosa. Strix means to utter shrill sounds and nebulosa means misty or cloudy, referring to its gray color.
Imagine what it would be like if you could hear even the slightest noise and knew exactly where the noise was coming from. Well, that is exactly what Great Gray Owls can do. Like the Barn Owl and Long-eared Owl they have asymmetrical ear openings that help them find prey by sound alone. The left ear opening is higher on the head than the right ear opening which enables precise directional hearing and lets them nab invisible prey.
Find This Bird
The Great Gray Owl is an elusive bird that is not easy to find, despite its size. Your best chance of seeing one is during an irruptive year when it comes south in search of food. Join your local birding group email listserv and watch rare bird alters to know when one has been sighted near you. You can also use the eBird species maps tool to find areas where other birders reported them in the past to try your luck at finding one. In these areas slowly walk the perimeter of a meadow or other opening looking for dark figures in trees. Pay particular attention to dead trees and don’t forget to look at all levels in the trees as they can sometimes perch fairly low. To catch them hunting, make sure to get out in the right habitat before dawn or dusk. Because Great Gray Owls are highly sought-after by birders and photographers who want to see the birds, and are sensitive to disturbance, don’t use call playbacks to find them. Using mice to bait or lure in owls (of any species) should be avoided all together.
Photographed in Brazos Bend State Park in November of 2002 using a Nikon N90s loaded with Fuji Provia color slide film, ASA: 100 with a Nikkor AF 300mm f/4 lens.
This owl would launch my obsession with photographing birds. I decided to drive out to Brazos Bend SP and try out my new 300mm lens. I drove to the back of the Park and explore the woods trail. I walked up on this predator as he was looking for lizards in the grass. He leaped off this limb to the ground, grabbed a green lizard and flew up to a higher branch, and had breakfast. It was one of those wildlife encounters you don't forget. I just wish I had taken more photos of him that day. After I switched to digital, I had this image scanned into a jpg file.
The Barred Owl’s hooting call, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” is a classic sound of old forests and treed swamps. But this attractive owl, with soulful brown eyes and brown-and-white-striped plumage, can also pass completely unnoticed as it flies noiselessly through the dense canopy or snoozes on a tree limb. Originally a bird of the east, during the twentieth century it spread through the Pacific Northwest and southward into California.
The Great Horned Owl is the most serious predatory threat to the Barred Owl. Although the two species often live in the same areas, a Barred Owl will move to another part of its territory when a Great Horned Owl is nearby.
Pleistocene fossils of Barred Owls, at least 11,000 years old, have been dug up in Florida, Tennessee, and Ontario.
Barred Owls don’t migrate, and they don’t even move around very much. Of 158 birds that were banded and then found later, none had moved farther than 6 miles away.
Despite their generally sedentary nature, Barred Owls have recently expanded their range into the Pacific Northwest. There, they are displacing and hybridizing with Spotted Owls—their slightly smaller, less aggressive cousins—which are already threatened from habitat loss.
Young Barred Owls can climb trees by grasping the bark with their bill and talons, flapping their wings, and walking their way up the trunk.