Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Great gray owl haunts woods of the north

by Scott Shindledecker
Daily Inter Lake | May 28, 2020 1:00 AM

I had my first sighting of a great gray owl last week after finishing a walk near home.

I was getting back into the vehicle when I saw two guys peering up into a conifer tree.

“What are they looking at?” I wondered. I’ve been around plenty long enough to know when people are intently staring at something, it’s a good idea to stop and have a look.

The older of the two saw me looking in their direction and as I pulled up next to them, he said what I first believed to be ‘Great horned owl.’

That perked up my ears because although I had caught brief glimpses of great horned owls in my old stomping grounds of Northcentral Pennsylvania, I never was able to watch one for very long.

They were usually gliding out of trees as I approached in the early or late hours of the day while hunting or exploring. Hearing their “hoot” calls was common, too, but getting a good look at one never really happened.

When I saw where the owl was sitting in the tree, I knew it wasn’t a great horned owl. I think I misheard what the man had said.

A great horned owl stands out due to its size and the two tufts of feathers on its head, giving it a “horned” appearance.

They are similar in stature though. The great gray owl is generally longer with a larger wingspan but they both weigh between 2 and 5 pounds, according to allaboutbirds.org.

As I talked with the guys, the older fellow said he’d been keeping an eye on owls in the area. I pulled out my camera and snapped several shots and the owl never showed a sign of being scared or spooked. He’d preen his feathers occasionally and eyeball us from time to time.

The great gray owl is found in Northwest and Southwest Montana, the northern half of Idaho, Northwest corner of Wyoming, parts of Oregon and California, Northern Minnesota, much of Canada, the Yukon and Alaska.

According to allaboutbirds.org, the site of the Cornell Lab of Orinthology, great grays prefer to “quietly perch on the edges of meadows or forest openings and are nearly invisible despite their size. Great grays hunt at night and during the hours before dawn and dusk. They quietly fly low, on broad wings, over meadows watching and listening for small mammals.”

It also said great gray owls spend their time in dense evergreen pine and fir forests with small openings or meadows nearby. They also live in subarctic swampy evergreen forest dotted with bogs or other openings.

That’s certainly what this one was doing.

They prefer to eat small mammals, such as mice, voles, moles and such.

According to allaboutbirds. org, the oldest recorded great gray owl was at least 18 years, 9 months old and lived in Alberta, where it was banded in 1996 and found in 2013, after being hit by a car.

I don’t know how old this one was, but I definitely enjoyed the experience of watching him and hope he has good hunting.

Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com