Seeing a Great Gray Owl is a rush, even for non-birders. Elusive and otherworldly, they’re sometimes called “the ghosts of the forest.” You can spend your entire life in Great Gray territory and never spot one.
Until recently I could count my Great Gray Owl encounters on two fingers. I saw my first one a few years ago near Canyon Junction in Yellowstone. And soon after moving to Silver Gate Marie and I were driving home through Yellowstone when one flew right in front of our car. Both of those sightings were brief.
Then about a month ago a local photographer friend texted me: “Just got a report that last night and this morning there was a great gray in Silver Gate. Did you hear about it?”
“No,” I responded, “but I’ll look around!” Marie and I bundled up and rushed outside. We spent an hour searching the area with no luck. That afternoon, however, Marie and her son Aidan returned from cross-country skiing to report that they’d found the owl. I texted my friend the news and hurried over, fingers crossed. There it was! A Great Gray Owl perched on a pine tree beside a small, snow-covered meadow.
Great Gray Owls are such unique-looking birds. They’re big, of course, although much of their size comes from an unusually thick layer of gray and white feathers. Their head is basically a radar dish, a round concave surface that funnels even the faintest sounds to two hidden ears that are aligned asymmetrically in a way that helps the owl pinpoint the location of its prey with uncanny precision. Their eyes are intense yellow circles surrounding pitch black pupils, separated by two ridges of feathers that form a white “X” above their small yellow beak. And their legs – completely covered with feathers and capped with sharp talons – can stretch far enough to reach rodents hidden under two feet of snow.
The Great Gray seemed entirely unconcerned by our presence. It flew from tree to tree, constantly scanning the meadow for the sounds of potential prey. Every now and then we had to break a trail through deep snow to keep it in sight, but for over an hour the owl remained nearby. As daylight faded it finally soared away.
Jort, a photographer friend with a particular interest in owls, suggested that we may have not seen the last of the Great Gray. Apparently they often don’t move very far from day to day. So for the next several days we searched the meadow and surrounding area over and over, always coming up empty. Just when I was about to accept that the owl had moved on, it was spotted east of Silver Gate. We found it in a line of trees beside the road, hunting rodents on the slope of a hill where there was less snow.
“I think this owl is a juvenile,” announced Jort.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because it’s stupid.”
Jort explained that it’s extremely rare to see Great Gray Owls in an area like Silver Gate in the winter because the snow is so deep it’s difficult for them to hunt. He suspected that this owl was still too young to know better. And – based on its size and the shape of its tail feathers – he identified it as a male.
We didn’t know it yet, but we were at the beginning of what turned out to be a week-long stretch of the owl remaining in the same general vicinity, often visible from the road. It was a remarkable opportunity to observe a Great Gray for an extended period of time.
One morning the owl was hunting up the slope from the road, mostly out of sight. Recently I’d met a wildlife photographer named Nick, who – despite only being in his early 20s – has already taken many of the best Great Gray photos I’ve ever seen. Nick and I decided to trudge up the hill through waist-high snow for a better look. Pretty quickly I was gasping for air, my boots full of snow, fully regretting our decision to leave the road. But Nick spotted the owl, and eventually we were able to position ourselves for a few shots.
At one point I was heading in the general direction the owl flew before vanishing. Nick came up behind me. “Do you see it?” he asked.
“Nope, I lost it.”
Nick, expressionless, pointed straight up. The Great Gray was perched in the branches directly above me. I tried to twist myself into position for a shot but stumbled over backwards in the deep snow. Maybe it’s not very surprising that Nick regularly gets home-run owl photos while I’m lucky to get a double.
We all worried about the Great Gray’s ability to find enough food. Early one morning I witnessed it catch two rodents in the space of just 20 minutes, so I knew it was having at least some success. But other voices joined Jort in expressing concern. Dan Hartman, a fellow Silver Gate resident who has studied the local wildlife for over 30 years, wrote a short article for Yellowstone Reports that echoed Jort’s assessment. This owl was a juvenile male, said Dan, that has only a small chance of surviving if it stays in the area.
One morning the owl appeared for its usual show before taking a break out of sight. I returned home for my own break, only to get a text from Jort that he’d found two pine martens nearby. Thrilled at the prospect of getting some marten photos, I raced over to meet Jort. One of the martens was already gone, but the other patiently let us tag along as it bounded from tree to tree. We had to slog through deep snow again, but Jort, Nick and I were able to spend more than an hour with our new friend.
Later that day I followed Jort and Nick off-trail down to Soda Butte Creek to look for the Great Gray. We didn’t find the owl, but Jort and Nick caught a quick look at an otter, a rare sighting so far up the creek. It’s amazing to see a Great Gray and a pine marten in the same day, but mixing in an otter as well is pretty epic.
I always strive to photograph wildlife ethically and responsibly, but increasingly I’ve been questioning how I balance my desire to get great shots with my desire to avoid having a negative impact. People who know owls better than I do assured me that Great Grays have such incredible hearing that they’re able to separate whatever noises we humans make from the sounds of any rodent they might be hunting. I hope that’s the case. At no point did I see anyone directly harass the owl by calling to it or getting too close (other than my own inadvertent positioning under a tree it had perched in!), but at times the crowds the owl attracted were large enough that it had to have been distracting.
I last spotted the Great Gray a few days before Christmas, and I’m not aware that anyone else has seen it since then. Needless to say, I hope it decided to migrate to better hunting grounds. I’m extremely grateful to have had so much time with such an incredible creature.
Owl-watching with Jort and Nick was something of a wake-up call. Their photos – especially their bird-in-flight shots – are just better than mine. Looking back, I don’t think my wildlife photography has improved much over the past five years. My approach, gear, and post-processing are stuck in 2018. Luckily this realization is happening at the right time of the year for resolutions, so my goal for 2023 is to elevate my wildlife photography game. I need to get more creative, be more patient, improve my processing, and maybe upgrade my equipment. Wish me luck!