Sunday, March 15, 2009

Portrait - Great Gray Owl

Manitoba is a cold cold place in winter but the opportunity to observe wondrous creatures such as the magnificent Great Gray Owl can dissolve the -40° temperatures, as least in my mind. In winter Great Grays love open habitats like the tamarack bog in this habitat photo.

They also come out to farmland and open country at the edge of the boreal forest, where they are often easier to see.

I usually see Great Grays in winter while driving, but this one I surprised as I walked around the corner of a trail in Birds Hill Provincial Park. This bird was not happy to see me so I took this photo quickly and then backed off. You can tell this owl is upset by the stiffened rictal bristles, which leave the nostrils visible.

The second photo is a crop so you can see this better. In this photo you can also see some of the other features that make Great Grays such excellent hunters. The whole face is shaped like a satellite disk (designed to pick up sound waves rather than radio waves) which channels sound into the asymmetrical ears. The stiffened feathers of the facial disk also aid in this. The “ridge” in the center of the face allows the two ears to perceive sound reasonably independently to increase the accuracy of pinpointing the source of a sound.

Great Grays can often hunt from a perch but their preferred prey is the meadow vole and these are often under the snow in open fields. So Great Grays will fly up,

then hover over a promising sound to get a better fix (this is when their adaptations for silent flight are particularly useful, i.e. the comb-like “teeth” on the leading edge of the outer primaries and the soft plumage),

then they plunge into the snow to grab the unsuspecting vole moving in their tunnels beneath the snow.

They squeeze the vole in their talons and wait until the vole is dead before transferring their prey to the bill (otherwise they risk getting bitten in the face)

And carry their meal away…

Occasionally voles will venture above the surface in winter and then the owls have easy pickings, swooping in

Throwing their feet in front of them (it helps that they have such long legs) and grab their prey

You can see how long the legs are as this bird flies away with their prize (the long legs also help when catching voles in deep snow)

These photos show the owl flying away with the vole (luckily in my direction)

I love to watch Great Grays push off – they fly so gracefully - so here are a few more images.

Great Grays are much tougher to spot in the summer but if you spend enough time sloshing through tamarack bogs you sometimes find them

These youngsters are still covered in down but they are getting ready to fledge

When just fledged, they look somewhat peculiar

With the wing feathers developing first, the underparts appear more downy than the upperparts

You can also see the development of the facial disk

This youngster has just been fed, you see a little drop of blood on the bill. Pretty soon this youngster will start to look like an adult – they grow up very quickly!


  1. That is a really amazing series of photos. I couldn't imagine -40. Would probably be dead, not looking at Owls?

  2. Thanx Vernon - I'm sure you have a lot of fascinating wildlife to watch wher eyou are too!!

  3. I discovered this blog by "accident", but I'll definitely have to keep visiting because the stories and photos here are amazing!

    Nice to meet ya!

  4. WOW!those are amazing photos.I have never been fortunate enough to a Grey Owl,so the best I can do is enjoy your pictures.Thanks.

  5. Christian,

    Fantastic photos! You have truly captured the beauty and grace of these owls in your photos. I particularly like the shot of the adult during the summer. Its more common to see pictures of them with a white background, during winter, but the green background is neat to see! Have you found many GGOW nests during your adventures?

  6. Thanx Ruth, Jared, and all! No I've not found many nests. it's fascinating how impenetrable the boreal bogs become to humans in summer yet home to so much wildlife!

  7. WOW! you have some impressive Owl shots great action shots well done!

  8. Wow you have lot of patience. Never seen owl before in the wild, just in the zoo. May be my next trip should be Manitoba, lol. Excellent captured images, I like action photos. Anna :)


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