Late one autumn afternoon in Jackson, Wyoming, I was driving with a friend along a quiet backcountry road, searching for a Great Gray Owl. We’d gotten a tip that one had been seen earlier in the day on this road, hunting rodents from a fencepost. I was very excited, as I had never before seen this owl, the largest of North America’s species, measuring up to three feet tall. It was nearing dusk and a blue blanket of light enveloped the fields and far off mountains. I intensely scrutinized near and far fenceposts as the landscape scrolled by. Suddenly I noticed that one fencepost looked taller than the others, with an odd shape at the top. And then I realized it was most likely an owl perched there! I asked my friend to back up so we could get a better look. We both looked through our binoculars and realized much to our delight that it was indeed a Great Gray Owl. He was oblivious to us, focused on looking and listening for voles to pursue on the ground before him.
We parked and set up our tripods and long lenses. The owl didn’t seem to mind our presence at all and continued to work his way ever closer to us. It was fascinating to observe him as he intently listened for the sounds of rodents; Great Gray Owls’ incredible hearing allows them to detect prey over 100 yards away through snow as deep as a foot and a half!
The conservation status of Great Gray Owls is “Sensitive” in the U.S. and “Vulnerable” in Canada. These owls face challenges to their survival partly due to difficulty in finding suitable nest sites. They greatly depend on finding large, broken-topped trees, called snags. When the owls nest on the tops of broken snags, the bowls have to be large enough to accommodate their massive size. These old trees are a vital component of healthy forest ecosystems and are utilized by a host of species.
How can you help? Two ways.
That afternoon we reveled in every moment of this gift, of being able to watch and photograph this magnificent owl as he made short flights out from his perches in pursuit of prey. We stayed until we could barely see him in the falling darkness. By the time we left, our hearts--and our camera cards—were full.