Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Close Encounter of the Great Gray Kind

Great Gray Owl just before the rays of the sun hit the valley in which it was hunting in Morgan County, Utah
Northern Utah Birders have been graced by the visit of two vagrant Great Gray Owls in recent weeks. Apparently harsh winter conditions in Wyoming and other northern states have driven these owls to more southern locations. The last documented sighting of a Great Gray Owl in Utah was way back in 1989 so naturally the recent reports had Utah birders scrambling from all over the state to the Great Gray epicenters in Wasatch and Morgan Counties. The Wasatch County owl went missing almost as quickly as it was reported, but not before some documentary photos were captured by local residents. Most birders missed seeing that owl. My friend Eric Peterson and I came up empty when we searched for it. We consoled ourselves while searching for that owl by reliving the experiences we had last year when we went to see our first-ever Great Gray Owls in Tetonia, Idaho--a five hour drive to the north from our home towns. Click this link to read about our encounter with Great Grays in the shadows of the Grand Tetons.

Last week reports of a Great Gray Owl in Morgan County were shared with the local birding community. A large number of Utah birders were able to see that owl because it was a gentle giant that seemed to ignore all the onlookers. I was able to see that owl last week through a scope and binoculars as it perched on a hillside about 120 yards away.  I enjoyed a nice visit with one of my sons as we drove just over an hour north to see that gorgeous bird.

Well, my friend Eric wanted to search for the bird so we decided to head up yesterday morning before I had to got to work for meetings. The bird had been searched for and missed for two days prior to our trip so we had our fingers crossed that the attention being showered on it hadn't pushed it to more remote hunting grounds. We suspected the owl would be most active in the early morning hours if it was still in the area since that was our experience with the Idaho owls we had observed the year before. We arrived in the area just before sunrise and cruised around the area in a methodical manner. We were coming up empty and began to wonder if the bird had moved on. To our delight, Eric spotted the owl on a fence when he looked for cross traffic as he approached a stop sign. We were like little kids in a candy store grinning ear to ear when we realized we were having a close encounter with such a gorgeous bird. We used our vehicle as a blind as we observed and photographed one of North America's tallest owl species (nearly 27" tall, 5" taller than Great Horned Owls).

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah
We pulled off the road to the right shoulder, opposite the side of the road the bird was on, so we would not block traffic. It became apparent rather quickly that the owl had very little interest in or concern for us as we sat in our vehicle. We watched as the owl focused its attention toward the snow-covered ground. It would move its head from side to side and occasionally stare in one direction, likely listening intently for the sound of a rodent moving beneath the snow.

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah
The owl moved from one post to another to look and listen for snow-tunneling prey. At one point the owl went down to the ground. We were pulling for it to secure some prey, but...

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah


After a minute or so the owl rose up from the snow and returned to its perch without having prey in its talons.

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah

Great Gray Owl Returning to it Hunting Perch in Morgan County, Utah
Several local residents drove their vehicles between us and the owl while we continued to watch from the other side of the street. One passerby stopped, rolled down a window, and took photos or video of the owl with a phone.  The owl essentially ignored them.

Below are a few other images captured during our moment in time with the extremely rare Utah visitor.

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah

Great Gray Owl Morgan County, Utah
True to observations Eric and I made last winter with Great Gray Owls in Idaho this owl flew up to what would turn out to be its daytime roost about an hour after the sun rose on the valley.

Great Gray Owl Roosting in Morgan County, Utah
It may sound strange to some, but I always say thank you aloud or to myself after memorable encounters with fascinating creatures like the Great Gray Owl.

I'll finish off by sharing a short video clip of the owl. I wasn't planning to shoot video so I did not have my tripod to steady the lens while zoomed to about 700mm (500mm with a crop sensor). The video is a little shaky and under exposed so I have a little practicing I need to do for low-light video capturing.
(View in HD for best quality)


Until next time...

12 comments:

  1. Awesome...really awesome. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Allen. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Kris! It was a very accommodating owl.

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  3. Thanks Jeff. Your note and photos were the best. What an amazing bird!

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    1. You are welcome, Dennis. An amazing bird indeed. Big thank-you to you for sharing with the broader community of birders.

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  4. Thank you, Jeff.
    You are a great artist.

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    1. Thanks, Jim. You are gracious and I appreciate the support.

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  5. I heard a very strange loud bird call. About 9 AM a couple months ago. I grabbed my camera / video and got the call taped Then I tracked it into a globe willow. It was a great horned owl. Got some still photos. Do they have other calls? It totally wasn't a "who who" . Is there anywhere on web, I can listen to other calls like this?
    Thanks great work with your photos.
    Gary

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    1. Xeno-Canto is a great website for searching for and listening to the various bird calls that have been recorded for species around the world, Gary. Here's the link: http://www.xeno-canto.org/

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