Monday, March 25, 2013

Great Gray Owl

Seeing an owl is always special…doesn’t happen often.

Reports of a very sociable Great Gray Owl along a rural road near Mauston, Wisconsin were numerous and exciting.  Postings on the Internet from late February and into March reported his comings and goings almost daily. Other photographers were posting great photos and I was envious to get my own. The troubling fact, though, was a three-hour drive across the state giving no guarantees of him being there when I arrived.

I went anyway.  He was that special.

Great Gray Owls, like other owls, are nocturnal.  To find one to photograph in the daylight is exceptional.  You have to be lucky.  It made me wonder, though, “What is wrong with him?” Something was keeping him exposed during the day and, sadly, it could be he was starving.

Owls hunt by sight, sound and stealth.  Facial discs gather sound and funnel it to asymmetrical ears for locating prey.  Their night vision is excellent with those big eyes.  Owl wings are nearly silent in flight. They are highly evolved nighttime hunters.

If he wasn’t finding enough food at night, he had no choice but to hunt in the daytime. A thick crust of ice on top of the snow might be foiling his hunting efforts, however.  Warm days have reduced a two-foot snow cover down to four inches in this Aldo Leopold Sand Counties area of Wisconsin.  He might be able to sound locate his prey beneath the snow, but he may not be able to break through the ice crust to capture it.  I can’t prove that. There could be other reasons for his unusual daytime hunting behavior; it’s just my observation.  What is more interesting, though, is his acceptance of humans.

Ten cars parked along this narrow country road with an unknown number of people inside, watching for any sign of this very special owl. Other drivers slowly passed through with owl-hopefulness, but lacked time or patience. License plates showed most cars were from Wisconsin, but Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota plates were present, too.  This owl watch has been going on for a month now, so the number of birders able to catch a glimpse of him, and the unfortunate numbers that missed out, would be hard to estimate.

Everyone I talked to was so anxious to see him, but he was a no-show on Friday March 22nd.  We waited eight hours for him, but when the light faded, we had to leave.   

Disappointed but not beaten, I came back the next day.

He showed up on Saturday…blue sky and sunlight!

He didn’t disappoint!

On Saturday, almost everyone was out of his or her car with cameras.  You didn’t need binoculars. Twenty feet high and twenty feet away, perched on a limb, he was big, beautiful and in your face.

Something way up high caught his attention… did something in the distance.  

His facial discs funneled a sound coming from the south. 

In the past thirty days he’s posed for ten thousand pictures and excited hundreds of birders.  If owls enjoy ‘rock stars status’ he has it.

Then he quietly left us for a tree far away.   After putting on a fantastic show of owl bravery, co-operation and natural beauty…no one left disappointed.  His fans loved him. He briefly looked back, then disappear behind the tree line.
I wished him well.