Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Great Gray Owl

An unusual bird has been spotted in Durham, New Hampshire. The kind of bird that convinces birders to drive 5 or 6 hours, from Vermont, Massachusetts and all over New Hampshire, to come see it.

The Great Gray Owl is a large northern owl usually found far north of us in Canada. Several years ago, a group of Great Gray Owls was near Montreal, and birders were driving 5 hours from southern New Hampshire up to Quebec to see that group of owls.

There's a NH Audubon birding email list where people post birds they find, and we heard about the bird on that list.

Monday morning, we drove for 15 minutes to find the small trail head parking lot on some land protected by the Nature Conservancy. We realized we hadn't gathered good info about where the owl had last been seen....so we just headed down the most obvious trail - which lead to a wooden platform overlooking some water. No birders. No owl.

We re-traced our steps to the car, and suddenly heard a yell and saw a man running out of the woods to his car. He stopped long enough to tell us he had the owl, before grabbing professional camera gear and heading down a less noticeable trail into the woods.

We followed a short distance, and got our first look at the owl. It was perched about 15 feet off the ground right next to the trail. It was easy to see without binoculars....and with the binoculars I could easily see details of its feathers, its beak, its talons.

Great Gray Owls are also found in Europe and Asia. They hunt during the day - eating small mammals such as voles.

The owl didn't seem concerned about the small group of birders that gathered to look at it. In fact, it flew closer to us, perched on a broken topped tree about 10 feet (3 meters) off the ground, turned its back to us and intently peered down toward the ground.

Apparently, that is hunting behavior for this owl. It watches the ground waiting for movement, and then flies in for the kill.

It flew to another perch across the trail....and at that point I decided I was more dedicated to running than to birding - so I headed out for a nice 5 mile (8k) run down a beautiful winding dirt road. Not much traffic at all - except for birders arriving from Martha's Vineyard, Vermont, and Keene, NH.

Jim, the official Life Looms Large photographer for this outing, stayed with the owl.

A photographic note from Jim: Luckily, just before the owl lunged, I had set my camera's iso to 1000 in hopes of getting a clear shot of the owl flying off. I know iso 1000 sounds insane, but I was pleasantly surprised that a couple of the high iso pics came out reasonably clear. All of these were taken with a Canon 40D and a 100-400 L lens either handheld or with a monopod.

The gathered birders were able to watch it peer at the ground, fly down to the ground and then take off before it flew into conifers and was out of sight for a few hours. Like many northern owls, the Great Gray Owl hunts during the day. The behavior Jim watched is typical hunting behavior for this type of owl.

When I got back from my run, there was no sign of the owl, but there were about 20 birders walking around in the forest looking for it. We headed home when it started to drizzle....rain and cameras don't mix so well. But we did hear on the birding list that the owl was sighted again around lunchtime.

Birders were speculating that the owl may have wintered in this area, and is just about finished molting. After it molts, they were guessing that it would head north again. Great Gray Owls are very elusive birds. Great Grays were discovered in America by Europeans before they realized that Great Gray Owls also were present in Europe.

You may notice that the owl's head is asymmetrical. Many owls have an adaption to improve their audio depth perception. Their ears are on different levels on the sides of their head to improve their depth perception.

The facial disk on an owl is indeed to direct sound to their ears. Even though a Great Gray Owl hunts during the day, in winter its prey is often under a layer of snow. Acute hearing is important. An owl's eyes take up approximately 50% of its head. (In a human head, that would mean that each eye would be the size of a baseball.) Owls eyes cannot move in their sockets, but owls have twice as many neck vertebrae as humans so that they can turn their heads almost 270 degrees in either direction.

The Great Gray Owl is a large owl - weighing approximately 3-4 lbs (1.3 - 1.8 kilos), like a Snowy Owl. It may appear a bit larger because of the way the fluffy feathers stick up on its head.

It is always thrilling to see an owl. I even love just hearing them at night. We were very lucky to be able to see this owl. It is a very spectacular bird!!


Jennifer said...

That is amazing! And the pictures are spectacular. I thought the "satellite dish" was so they could hunt at night without being able to see. I didn't realize there were so many owls that hunt during the day! Cool!

Hilary said...

wow...what great pics......I wish I lived closer, I would have loved to have seen the owl that close.....lucky you.

Deanna said...

Wow!! Those pictures are stunning!

Chris Stusek said...

Awesome pictures, and great info. Thank you for sharing.

Alison said...

Wow, he is beautiful!

Theresa said...

Spectacular is right. What a handsome bird and the pictures are just wonderful! I'm going back to look some more at them.

bspinner said...

Amazing pictures!!! And great information. When I was growing up in North Dakota we used to see white owls on the power lines but I've never seen a gray.

Dave Daniels said...

Wow, he got some GREAT photos! Each of them is wonderful.

charlotte said...

This is astonishing! I have never seen an owl, except in the zoo. How amazing that you could be so close to it!

Life Looms Large said...

Thanks for the photo kudos!! (I've passed them along to Jim.)

We were very lucky to get to see this amazing bird so close to us. This is only the third or fourth owl I've ever seen....the others being 2 snowy owls and 1 barred owl. We hear owls almost every night in the summer though! Love them!!


Evelyn said...

Owls are one of my favourite birds and I have had great encounters with them! The photos are wonderful. And I am glad my old mohair post is getting some reading and is useful to you! Thanks, Evelyn

Sue said...

I was unaware that owls hunted during the day. Maybe that is what the barred owl that I hear talking during the day here in Alabama is doing at 4:00 in the afternoon. Wonderful pictures.

Cathy said...

Wonderful photos!

We have great horned owls nesting here (and saw them mate at dusk in Feb) but the other day we saw our first barn owl in the wild.

There's just something so magical about seeing an owl in the daylight!!

Laura K. Aiken said...

These photos are wonderful! Thank you for sharing. We had barn owls in our home when living in Germany. They sounded just like children screaming. Really scary for a newly married couple. I haven't seen on since, but sure would love to.
Laura Aiken

Glenn said...

I believe we have a pair of these owls living in the woods behind our house in Windham, NH. I have yet to see them, but they make distinct sounds that I occasionally hear at night.

Life Looms Large said...


Sorry to take so long to respond to your comment. I've been away with only spotty internet access.

If you do have a pair of Great Gray Owls in Windham, lots of New England birders will be interested. From what I understand, they're very unusual in NH. I did read that sometimes the call of a Barred Owl is similar to a Great Gray Owl call. Any chance that you have barred owls in your area instead?