Posts from the ‘Great Gray Owl’ Category

Gray Morning Great Gray

Great Grey Owl

On Memorial day, I got up very early to make a quick trip to the Sax-Zim Bog. It was a gray, misty morning but calm. And the resident birds seemed energized after several days of heavy rain and thunderstorms.

And at 9am I got a wonderful surprise…A Great Gray Owl was hunting voles along McDavitt Road. This probably means that this owl has a nest full of begging beaks somewhere in the vast Black Spruce/Tamarack bog. I was able to get some video and photos as he/she hunted the wet ditch sides. Not very concerned with me, she eventually flew deeper into the bog. I was able to get this photo from the car window by bracing the 400mm lens on the door frame.

I tried to maneuver the car a bit to minimize background clutter and this is the best I could do. I don’t really mind the background branches as much as I thought I would…And I love the lichen-festooned branch the owl is sitting on. Ninety-plus percent of Great Gray photos you see were taken in winter, mainly because that is when they are more visible as they hunt open meadows and roadsides. Summer usually finds them hunting deeper in the bogs. This image has a warmer feel than those.

Also note that my camera was ready to go in the seat next to me when the Great Gray appeared; It was preset to Tv (shutter priority 1/400 second and auto ISO. This way I knew I could shoot handheld and still get a sharp image…And I can live with the noisier image at ISO 1000. If I’d had my camera on aperture priority f5.6, I may have ended up shooting at a slow shutter speed and getting an unsharp and unusable image.

Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens at f5.6 1/400 sec at ISO 1000, handheld but braced on door frame of car.

Elsewhere in the Sax-Zim Bog I had some interesting birds. Though no “wolf whistles” of the Upland Sandpipers were heard, a very surprising Western Meadowlark was singing; Easterns are more common here. In the same field, a lone Sharp-tailed Grouse sat atop a wooden fence post. Nobody told him the party was over three weeks ago! Magpies foraged in hay fields along CR229. Bobolinks had also arrived.
I flushed a group of 6 American Woodcock from a clump of hazel…likely a family group as they nest early and stay together for a while.
In the Black Spruce bogs Connecticut Warblers were found at several locations including a couple males singing on opposite sides of one road. Blue-headed Vireos were at several sites. Winter Wrens and Sedge Wrens were in full song. And Yellow-bellied Flycatchers have returned to their bog breeding forests. Lincoln’s Sparrows sang from the scrubby taiga-like bogs.

Great Gray Owl Behavior— Erect Alarm Posture

Here is a single frame from some video I took of a Great Gray Owl trying to melt into his background but still keeping an eye on the intruder…In this case a fly-over Common Raven. Looks very different than the “fat and fluffy” appearance of a relaxed or hunting Great Gray.

In this video I show footage from two different incidents in which a Great Gray Owl detects an “enemy”…in one case a Bald Eagle, and in the other a Common Raven. Note how the owl stretches itself vertically to become “skinny,” (concealment posture or erect alarm posture) and then backs up to be next to the trunk (presumably to blend in) and then presents its narrowest profile towards the raven or eagle.

So the question is, Why would a Great Gray not want to be detected by a raven or an eagle? The well-known Canadian Great Gray Owl researcher, Robert Nero, wrote a neat book about a captive Great Gray called Lady Grayl: Owl with a Mission. In it he says that he’s only witnessed it once in the wild and that was when an immature Bald Eagle flew a hundred meters over a perched Great Gray. He goes on to say that even though Bald Eagles rarely bother Great Grays, this bird was probably not responding to the species of raptor, but rather the raptor image…”Better to be safe than sorry!”

Filmed in the Sax-Zim Bog of northern Minnesota. Ironically, the eagle incident was filmed on March 3, 2011, exactly one year before the raven footage.

Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, tripod

Give to the Max Day starts Now!

Today (Wednesday, November 16th) is GIVE TO THE MAX DAY…A 24-hour blitz of giving to your favorite non-profit/organization. My organization is one of those participating. We are raising money to build a Birder/Photographer Welcome Center in the Sax-Zim Bog. To see our page, go to

I’m not sure if you all know that I started a non-profit called Friends of Sax-Zim Bog ( Friends of mine, and fellow birders, Dave Benson and Kim Eckert round out the 3-person board of directors. We are dedicated to supporting, promoting and protecting the Sax-Zim Bog Important Bird Area of northern Minnesota. Our goals are 3-fold:
1. Acquire bog habitat in the Sax-Zim Bog of St. Louis County, Minnesota (We are losing valuable bog habitat to logging each year)

2. Build a small “Birder/Photographer Welcome Center” and bog interpretive boardwalk on the land

3. Fund educational/research projects centered on peatlands and associated birdlife

Why is this project necessary?
Sax-Zim Bog is one of THE MOST FAMOUS BIRD WATCHING SITES IN NORTH AMERICA, drawing hundreds of birders and photographers annually (thousands during big owl “invasion” years). [It was recently mentioned several times in the Hollywood movie with Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, called The Big Year]

BUT the area has no facility for birders, photographers, tourists and locals to get more information, share sightings, warm up, learn about the natural history of the birds and the bog.

Also, there is currently no easy way to access and experience the bogs. A series of boardwalks would facilitate this.
The Black Spruce-Tamarack bog habitat that is most important for the breeding and wintering birds in the core Sax-Zim Bog IBA area must be preserved. The “birdable” habitat that borders county roads is fast disappearing due to logging.

A photo-illustration of the proposed Sax-Zim Bog Birder/Photographer Welcome Center.

Many birders have found their “lifer” Great Gray Owl in the Sax-Zim Bog.

Return of an Old Friend

It had been a long time. I hadn’t seen my old friend the Great Gray Owl in nearly six months…until today. I was up in the Sax-Zim Bog knocking around, the old Subaru pushing through four inches of unplowed snow, when a Great Gray flew up from a small meadow, a vole in its talons. I stopped as quickly as I could, and pulled over as far as I could, and got out as quietly as I could. Gone.

Then, as I was about to walk (i.e. shuffle dejectedly) back to the car, the owl was right there. How could I have missed him? He was perched twenty feet up in an aspen, listening intently, paying me no mind.

A passerby rolled up in an SUV, “Anything good?” he said. This is the standard birder greeting when coming upon another birder. “A Great Gray” I returned. He pulled right over. We watched the Great Gray for the next half hour. He hovered a few times but didn’t make any more plunges. At one point a flock of Chickadees found him and let the huge owl know that this was THEIR woods. The owl was unfazed.

Video was my main goal but I did have the presence of mind to snap a few frames before it got too dark. I didn’t think too much about the photos because it was the same old image—a Great Gray perched upright in an aspen—I have dozens of these. So back at home, I decided to play around with the color balance to accentuate the blue colors of dusk while keeping the owl its natural gray. I also reduced the contrast to emphasize the owl. It’s a little weird …but I think I like it.

Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6, f5.6 at 1/180, ISO 2000, tripod

This is the original image before any work was done in Aperture or Photoshop:


I had the privilege of spending time with a very responsible Great Gray Owl today. On a little used dirt road in southeast Itasca County I stumbled on a hunting Great Gray right next to the road. If I was a northern owl in search of suitable habitat that reminded me of my ancestral Canadian home (any assumption that this owl had its genetic roots north of the border is purely speculation on my part), then this would be a bog for me. Monospecific stands of Black Spruce rooted in deep sphagnum moss bordered both sides of the road. We (the owl and I) could have been in northern Canada for all we knew.

I parked well up the road and hoofed it back towards him with camera and tripod and flash. It was a quiet and heavy day; fog and thick mist in the air. As is typical of northern owls, the Great Gray hardly acknowledged me. I started shooting. He ignored me; Eyes wide open searching the moss with his ears. After a few false alarms he settled back and seemed to relax. His eyes drooped more and more until they shut. Instantly his eyes snapped open and he seemed to pull himself erect…It was a perfect imitation of a sleepy man in church during a long boring sermon. I could read his mind, “I’ve got three hungry mouths to feed back at the nest…I have to stay awake and capture dinner…No relaxing…The little lady will be upset….Why else would I be hunting at midday?” This scenario repeated itself several times before he flew back into the bog. Unable to fly, I fairly skipped back to the truck with dozens of fun photos of a responsible owl father, a rarely seen denizen of the North.

Canon XTi, Canon 400mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter, tripod, f6.3 at 1/250, ISO 400