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Bird Species Spotlight: Great Gray Owl

by Jake Jacoby | January 25, 2020

© Jake Jacoby

It seems like the great grey owl has been on my bucket list forever. However, I knew that they were never coming to Florida to visit me as their nomadic travels only take them as far south as Minnesota. Most of the year is spent in the far northern regions of Quebec, Canada, west to Alaska, and east to Scandinavia and Siberia.

Great Grey Owl © Jake Jacoby

These owls breed in North America from as far east as Quebec to the Pacific Coast and Alaska, and from Finland and Estonia across northern Asia. While they are for the most part permanent residents, they may move south when food is scarce. There are also sedentary populations in the Pacific states of California, Oregon, and Washington.

So, in December 2019, I bit the bullet, flew to Duluth, Minnesota and then drove to the Sax Zim Bog, about 50 miles northwest of Duluth. This “bog” is about 300 square miles and is a magic mix of black spruce-tamarack bogs, aspen uplands, willow flats, meadows, hayfields, lakes, and rivers. And, of course, it was frozen solid when I was there. It is famous for its winter concentration of the “Phantom of the North,” the great grey owl. So, with temperatures ranging from 30 degrees below zero to 15 degrees above, and with scattered snow showers each day, we drove the roads in the bog for 4 days looking for the owl. The first day, we found 3 owls at dawn but only one agreed to be photographed; it was gray, with overcast skies, no sun and bitterly cold—really tough conditions in which to photograph anything! The second day we drove the roads for 8 hours and did not see any birds. Same with the third day; but, on the fourth and final day, we found 3 owls that agreed to be cooperative and let us photograph them. Even the weather slightly cleared enough for us to declare, “Mission accomplished!”

Great Grey Owl © Jake Jacoby

The great grey owl is the tallest owl in North America and stands roughly 30-inches tall. It is also the 3rd heaviest owl behind the snowy and great horned owls but only weighs about 2.5 to 3 pounds. They do not have ear tufts but they have the largest facial disc of any raptor. One distinguishing feature is a “bow tie” just below the beak. When I saw them look at me in the wild, I was mesmerized by their bright yellow eyes.

Great grey owls do not build nests, so they typically use nests previously used by a large bird, such as a raptor. They will also nest in broken-topped trees and cavities in large trees between March and May each year. The female will usually lay 4 eggs with the incubation period lasting about 30 days. Brooding lasts 2 to 3 weeks, and then the female will start roosting on a tree near the nest. The owlets, which are born helpless, with eyes closed and completely covered in fluffy down, will jump or fall from the nest at 3 to 4 weeks after hatching and then begin to fly 1 or 2 weeks later. If they leave the nest before they are able to fly, they routinely climb back up the tree to the nest.

Great Grey Owl © Jake Jacoby

These owls wait, listen, and watch for prey, then swoop down and plunge their talons through the snow into the prey. They also fly low through open areas in search of prey. They frequently hunt from a low listening post such as a stump, low tree limb, fence post, or a road sign and can hear a vole under 2 feet of snow from 100 yards away. Their large facial disks, also known as “ruffs,” focus sound, and the asymmetrical placement of their ears assists them in locating prey. This is critical because of the lack of light during the late and early hours in which they hunt. On their nesting grounds, they mainly hunt at night and near dawn and dusk; at other times, they are active mostly during the night. Small mammals, such as voles, pocket gophers, mice, moles, chipmunks, and lemmings make up the majority of their diet. These animals are swallowed whole and then coughed up as pellets after digestion.

Great Grey Owl © Jake Jacoby

The great grey owl is not as aggressive as most other alpha predators. They are less likely to attack each other or potential threats than are other large predatory birds. They do not protect a large nesting territory, nor do they defend hunting territories through aggression.

The lack of territorial aggressiveness makes this owl difficult to find in the field, will often remain still even if a human is nearby, and therefore are often overlooked or unnoticed. I can certainly attest to that during my trip to Minnesota where being able to find them perched in a tree was difficult to say the least.

I’m glad I finally made the trip to the frozen north to find this owl and after encountering the weather in Minnesota, I know why I live in Florida.

About the Author

To see more of Jake's work as well as his favorite photographs check out his Flickr page.

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