Great Gray Owls!
Earlier this winter, reports in Canada began to surface about great gray owls moving south. The numbers of reports began to steadily increase, and birders in many areas of the northeast became excited about the prospect to see one of the most sought after species – not only in North America, but the world.
Great grays are our largest owl with an enormous head and a fluff of feathers to insulate them from their cold arctic home. They are Holarctic in their distribution, meaning they are found in northern latitudes in both North America and Eurasia. This arctic species is often somewhat active during the day, sitting and resting low in trees while keeping alert for rodents. And they show surprisingly little concern of people. Perhaps that is a result of living in an area with so few people around.
While great gray owls generally stay well north of our region, they move further south occasionally in a cyclical pattern when their small mammal prey – mice, meadow voles, etc – become scarce or difficult to find during the winter. These cycles occur roughly every four years, and they vary in strength. Four years ago was a weak movement of owls, while eight years ago was a record movement with unbelievable numbers present. Reports from Minnesota that year estimated about 4500 owls!
This year their movement south is a bit more modest, but good numbers of great gray owls are moving south in Canada with many sightings around Montreal and Ottawa. The birds appear to be following along the St. Lawrence River (at least that is where most of the reports are), stopping and hunting along the various islands and habitats they encounter along the way. This past weekend we traveled north and had amazing looks at two great gray owls in Quebec. And while most owls are still north of the border, not all of them have stopped there.
The same cold fronts that brought us the bitterly cold, bone chilling temperatures of a couple weeks ago also certainly moved owls south as well. I had been looking at likely spots where an owl might make it across the border into New York State, and Robert Moses State Park in northern St. Lawrence County was perhaps the best choice. Sure enough someone found a great gray at Robert Moses at the end of that bitterly cold week. In addition, just this week a report surfaced that a non-birder near Lake Placid had seen a likely great gray owl that same frigid week. The bird was found in good open hunting habitat edged with forested habitat for shelter.
Neither owl has been found again – presumably moving south in our region to find food. The quest for birders and non-birders alike is to find where they've gone. After all, they are a species for which it is worth the search!
If you are interested in finding an owl, it is helpful to know how to search. Great gray owls are often active during the day, sitting conspicuously in forests along the edges of fields. There they monitor rodents while they rest. They become more active at dawn and in the late afternoon and dusk, when they spread their enormous, silent wings and hunt. While hunting, they continue to perch on the edges of fields using their sharp hearing to locate meadow voles and other small mammals, flying out to plunge into the snow to catch them. The owls will sit at a variety of heights in the trees, but often sit fairly low to the ground. So keep your eyes open whenever you are out for a chance to see this amazing bird. And I'll continue to blog with any updates on sightings in the region. They are a spectacular bird to witness!