Sunday, February 13, 2011

Owls en route...

People sometimes asked me why, after having lived in so many countries, I would now live in frigid Manitoba, Canada. Aside from having an awesome job working towards developing citizen science and for conservation, there are some perks to being this close to the magnificent boreal forest, even if it is brutally cold. Recently I traveled to a few spots in Manitoba to do atlas presentations and workshops and en route got to see one of the things that makes living in Manitoba so appealing – lots of owls! The photos below are from a short “owl prowl” yesterday with some students from University College of the North – they were in for quite a treat!

Here is the Great Gray Owl we saw (or Great Grey Owl if you prefer) near Pinawa, Manitoba. Perched out in the light snow, this handsome phantom of the boreal forest was not in the least worried about our presence. Notice how they tuck their feet under the body feathers when perched to reduce exposure to bare parts.

Here is the same bird listening intently while hunting…

And why not zoom in for a close up of that face (which we discussed as the students watched the owl in the spotting scope). The large, flat face is shaped like a pair of satellite dishes (separated by a ridge down the middle of the face) with a ruff of stiff feathers around the outside and a pattern of concentric circles. This face, beautiful though it be, is not designed for beauty (nor for aerodynamics) but rather for… LISTENING! Great Grays have asymmetrical ears (one higher and one lower) and they use the slight difference in timing in the arrival of a sound to one ear over the other to pinpoint prey that they cannot see; for example, a vole under the snow. The satellite dish-like shape of the face and the stiff feathers surrounding it funnel sound to the ears. The separation of each half of the face further enhances their ability to pinpoint prey. With this face, Great Grays can hear the movements of a vole that is several feet under the snow. Their long legs help them to plunge through the snow but it is their precision hearing that enables them to capture prey they cannot see.

Great Grays also have such a magical “soft” and leisurely flight style that I never tire of trying to capture photos of them in flight, or launching into flight… here are a few samples from yesterday. Here are a few flight shots I took yesterday. The first three illustrate take off…

And this photo shows the "turn, drop and launch" technique. If you look closely at the secondaries you can see the different feather generations indicating an adult bird…

We also had fantastic looks at four Northern Hawk Owls. After some instruction, the students were even getting the search image down and spotting their own owls! When this Northern hawk Owl chose to fly right over our heads it was great to “hear” everyone’s smiling faces while I clicked a few flight shots…

These are the perks of my job!


  1. Amazing.The Great Grey is one owl I have yet to see in the wild.OK,there are many owls I have not seen,but this one is on top of the list.

  2. If you have time and are coming to Winnipeg, let me know and we'll try to find you one!

  3. Beautiful photos and very interesting post, Christian. I really have to get over to Manitoba soon. I haven't seen any owls (other than Snowy) this winter.


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