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Great Gray Owl: The Ghost of the Forest

Great gray owl

“Looking for great gray owl in Yellowstone.” — Recent Email

That’s literally all it said, proving that there was only one thing on people’s mind in Yellowstone this spring.  I had already received maybe a dozen queries in May and June while I was in the park from people keen on seeing a Great gray owl.  Tour clients, cabin guests and other random people who were chatting with me in the park all wanted to find this bird.  And typically I’m happy to help people achieve their wildlife goals.

The only problem was that nobody was actually finding great grays!  I certainly tried.  I spent a fair amount of time stopping at different owl hot spots, including slogging around a bit in the woods, without any luck.  Others I know who are aware of owl spots outside of Yellowstone were striking out as well.  It was very wet this spring, with all the extra snow from this winter, so many of the usual hunting grounds for these birds were still underwater.

So it was a bad spring for owls.  That just means I’ll have to relive some of my past great gray encounters and hope that next year will be better.

I’ve sometimes gone years without seeing these magnificent birds—probably my favorite avian species in the park—and then I’ll have a run on sightings.  So I never know when my luck will change.  When one does find a Great gray owl, it’s very rewarding.  Though they’re very large, they can be pretty difficult to find.  They blend in quite well with the gray pine tree trunks, and they’re so quiet… I’ve walked directly under an owl perched 15 feet off the ground and didn’t know it until I looked back.  And compared to many other birds, these giants can be fairly tolerant, often ignoring people altogether as they hunt.  They’ve been known to even land on camera tripods—or on people—in hopes of using them as a hunting perch (with no baiting involved, by the way… that’s a topic for another day).

I’ll never forget my first GGO.  I saw it ten years ago, during my May, 2007 trip (yes, the same one that produced this).  I was driving toward Canyon Junction when I glanced into a small meadow nearly hidden from the road.  A few photographers were set up along the fringes of the woods, and there, perched on a short snag in the middle of the grass, was a large gray shape.

Great gray owl

At that point I’d seen relatively few owls during my travels, but I immediately knew what this was.  There’s little doubt why the great gray is so popular among bird and owl enthusiasts.  It’s one of the world’s tallest owls and looks somewhat imposing with that large round head.

Great gray owl

Between 2007 and 2009, I’d see more of them in Yellowstone, in a few different areas.  And then there was a dry spell, until a friend of mine spotted one in the autumn of 2012 as we were headed back out of the park on our way to my cabin.

Great gray owl

The next spring was notable because that’s when I saw my first active great gray nest.  Over the course of a few visits, I was fortunate to not just see the female (sitting on eggs the entire time), but also the male, who was doing all the grocery shopping.  Sometimes he was difficult to find, perched silently in the dense forest.  At other times, all one had to do was listen for the alarm calls.  It’s a tried and true way to find owls… listen to the other birds.  Smaller birds like robins and crows will mob bigger owls and make a ruckus, letting all other birds know there’s a predator in the area.  On this occasion in 2013, it was Clark’s nutcrackers that were screeching away while divebombing the owl.

Great gray owl

In early June, while we were watching the nest, the male flew in and delivered food: a large vole.  Then he took off in the only direction he could: right at us.

Great gray owls

I returned during the summer—a season I typically avoid in Yellowstone—to check on the progress of the chicks.  Two owlets had already hopped over to other trees, exploring their rapidly expanding home base.

Great gray owlet

Great gray owl chicks aren’t particularly cute, and they look very little like the adults whose large facial discs make for a striking visage.  Of course, those massive heads are mostly made up of feathers… for a tall owl the Great gray is actually fairly light.  One evening we watched as one of the adult owls hunted for its chicks, not diving quickly into the grass, but instead gliding softly and parachuting silently and slowly down onto unsuspecting prey.

Great gray owl

Again, the owls took a couple years off.  It wasn’t until I was leading a private fall tour in 2015 that I saw my next one.  It happened to be the lightest individual I’d ever found.  Not leucistic, but a far lighter shade than most other Great grays.  What a beautiful bird.

Great gray owl

Things changed the next year, with Great grays popping up all over the place in Yellowstone from spring all the way through to fall.  In spring, a few owls were seen in the same spots where I’d first seen one a decade before.

Great gray owl

I really enjoy tromping around in the forest looking for owls, but there is always a slight tension… a hint of danger.  Twice I’ve run into bears while looking for owls to photograph in the woods.  So inevitably the owls know I’m coming these days (all the shouts of “Hey bear!” tip them off pretty easily).  Luckily, they’re not too shy, as I mentioned, so I still manage to find them despite my loud presence.

When I returned to the park in fall last year, they were putting on a show further south, not far from Yellowstone Lake.  Much of the action took place close to the road, and the owls virtually ignored the gathered throng as they hunted.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

There’s a downside to having one’s territory so close to the park roads.  Soon after I photographed the owl above, it was hit by a passing vehicle.  And soon, another owl in another part of the park was struck and killed by a car.  This is a common fate for this species, which is low, slow flyer.

Great Gray Owl

Who knows how long it will be before I see my next Great gray owl in Yellowstone.  Hopefully later this year, but if not, maybe next winter or spring.  Looking for owls is always fun, so I’m looking forward to my next search for the ghost of the forest.

By the way, a Great gray will finally adorn the cover of my new 2018 Owls calendar, which will be available soon in the store!

Owls 2018 calendar cover

 

2 Comments

  1. Great photos and stories behind them! I was searching trees and listening quietly in the evenings at the end of May this year… no luck. I had told you about one down on Moose Wilson rd back in late September, 2012. Always wondered if you found it.

    • Author
      Max July 12, 2017 Reply

      Don, I’ve yet to see one down there, though I know plenty of people that have had luck. Looked a lot in 2012, as well as 2014 and ’15, but only ever found Great horned owls in that area.

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