Thursday, April 6, 2017

Owl Magic: Great Gray Owls

My last journal post got me to thinking about great gray owls …. Such a magnificent bird!  My head nearly popped a dent in the roof of our van the first time I spotted one.  We were zooming along in the central part of Yellowstone National Park when I saw one about 100 yards off the road.  Dale had the audacity to say, “Are you sure?” 

Of course I was! … and of course he knew it.  He was just teasing me. 

For over twenty years I always look extra carefully at that owl’s snag when we drive by.  Watching the lodgepole snag has been a lesson in how long it takes for a snag to weather in relatively dry mountain air – years and years.  The snag was recently dead when I first spotted the owl – lots of grey gnarly limbs.  The tree has gradually grown sparcer and sparcer as one limb after another drops. Hardly any branches remained the last time I saw it.  I wonder if it still stands.

We don’t expect to see a great gray owl when we visit the park, but we always hope.  Way back on September 25, 1992 our hopes were more than fulfilled.  We had been camping in the park, but by late on the 24th wind and snow made town look awfully tempting.  We tucked tail and headed to a motel for the night.

The storm passed and mid morning we headed back into the park.  We had just finished a picnic lunch when a great gray came swooping along the edge of the nearby lodgepoles.  Great grays do most of their hunting at night, but not always.    This one attracted immediate attention from a handful of photographers, but all too soon the owl disappeared into the forest.  We hiked the area for and hour and a half before catching a couple more quick glimpses.  Soon everyone had left the area but we were still motivated.  Slowly we explored meadows edged with lodgepoles.  We trudged and trudged.  It snowed a little, the sun teased us a little, mostly it was cool and cloudy.  I even carried an umbrella so I could protect the camera if we actually found an owl.

By 5 PM we were about done in.  We been plodding about in marsh grasses for a good four hours.  We were ready to head to camp; but then, way across the meadow we spotted a great gray owl!  Two great grays!  … no, three great grays!! 

A soft hoot floated across the quiet meadow.  Their hoot is so low I almost believe I am making it up when I hear one.
One owl appeared to be an adult and the other two were full sized youngsters.  Adults look quite spiffy in the cloak of soft greys and just a touch of pure white and black.  Immature’s markings aren’t quite as crisp. 

The adult was perched in a lodgepole at the edge of the meadow.  Big fluffy snowflakes started to fall again.  He tipped his head skyward and watched with quiet interest.  Fortunately the snow shower didn’t last long.  Late afternoon light improved.  We slowly crossed the meadow.

When we neared the far edge of the meadow, movement to our right caught our attention.  A youngster flew towards us and landed on an upturned snag in the meadow.  So close!  He watched and listened. 
Suddenly the owl spread its wings, flew a few yards and dropped into the tall grasses. 

He caught a mouse.  Well, probably a vole.  He immediately flew back to the downed log and swallowed his prey. 

His second vole came soon after, only this time his short flight brought him even closer to us.  He now had a problem on his hands. Dale and I stood still, but he wasn’t too sure about our presence; but, more important, he didn’t want to give up his prey.    He tried to fly off but he was stuck to the ground.  His talons held the mouse, and a bunch of marsh grasses.  Oh dear, now what to do? 

Eventually our owl gathered his wits and bent down and transferred the vole to his beak, thus eliminating the grass problem.  Off he flew to down his dinner.

We watched the two youngsters hunt for another half hour.  It’s a quiet process.  Lots of watching and listening, then a silent float down into the grasses.  Its clear to us the owls couldn’t see their prey, that they were relying of sound.  We were fortunate that these two weren’t experts yet, and that it took them a fair amount of time to catch their dinner.