the Great Gray

A trip to the land of gray skies, little light, dense spruce and tamarack bogs, and chilly temperatures in north central Minnesota gave us an opportunity to see one of the most iconic animals of the northern Boreal forest, the Great Gray Owl, in action, doing what it does best — hunting mice under the snow.

[Note added after posting: if you’re interested, read the comments below the post for more information about the Great Gray Owl hunt]

A brief glimpse of the sun at sunrise was the only time we saw it during the entire time we were in this gray landscape, where the intensity of light in the dense overcast was about 1/50th of what it would be on a sunny day.
You have to look really carefully at every snag as you drive down the snowy roads of the black spruce forest where Great Grays like to hunt. The owls blend in so well with the conifer bark, they often go unnoticed.

Great Grays are the largest (by total body length, not weight) owl in North America. Their over-sized heads with huge facial disks are essential for hearing what is going on under the snow cover.

Great Gray Owls are mouse specialists, adept at crashing through crusty or powdery snow to depths of 18 inches to snare a vole in their talons.

The arrangement of facial feathers in two parabolas collects infra-sounds of mice running through their burrows under the snow cover and reflects it to their asymmetrically placed and shaped ears. The intensity and time difference of sound arriving at their two ears allows the owls to “focus” on the direction of the sound.

They scan the landscape under their perch by moving their head back and forth to hone in on the sounds of mice under the snow from up to 100 feet away, then quickly descend to the ground to trap their prey, completely silently. The mouse never knows the owl is coming.
Despite weighing only 2.5 pounds, these owls can break through snow crust strong enough to hold a human’s weight to get at the prey hiding below. Sharp talons snare the mouse, and the owl can quickly bring it up to its head and swallow it, head first.
Their hearing is so acute, they are able to successfully capture their prey about 60% of the time. In fact, they are more successful catching voles through snow than they are at catching gophers through loose dirt in the summer.
Great Gray Owls can hunt visually as well, and can cover hundreds of feet distance with a burst of wing flaps to grab a vole or mouse off the surface of the snow, and carry it off.

25 thoughts on “the Great Gray

  1. Sensational post about these magnificent owls, Sue! I can’t believe how hard they are to see – incredible camouflage. And how ever did you capture those beautiful flight and prey shots?! Fascinating info.

    • Yes, what a bird! Oh my, what an experience. We just couldn’t believe our luck. And it was a team effort between me and my husband getting those shots because we were on opposite sides of the owl. They are so amazingly quiet — we didn’t hear even a whisper as the owl flew, nor a squeak from the mouse being consumed.

  2. What an incredible series of shots, Sue. Most of us would be more than happy to capture a single shot of a perched Great Gray Owl. Catching that sequence of the owl hunting is a real testament to your skills as a photographer. Wow!

    • You know, when you go to an area expressly to see a specific critter, and you manage to not only find them, but find them rather close to you, and then to see them in action, as described by countless others that you have envied for years — well, that is just about the best experience in the world!! Now, I have to admit this was a team effort. There were three of us on this little adventure, and we drove snowy roads until we found a bunch of other people camped out on the road photographing the owls, so we knew where to stop thanks to others. And as far as capturing the sequence of the attack on the vole, I was on one side of the owl when it flew down, and my husband was on the other side, and the owl happened to land about 12 feet away to capture the mouse, so quietly that he didn’t even see/hear it coming. When he realized the owl was almost right beside him, he had to step back and unzoom the telephoto to get the whole owl in the photo. An amazing experience — you know, once in a lifetime sort.

      • Thanks for the back story, Sue. It sounds almost like a dream scenario for most of us wildlife photographers, one that we can imagine, but never really think will ever happen to us. I am so happy that you were able to take advantage so well of that opportunity when it presented itself. Non-photographers don’t always realize that getting shots like yours is the culmination of a lot of hard work and practice in the field and not just simple luck.

    • Thanks for commenting on the post, Sue. I do enjoy “teaching”, as it was my life-long career. You can take the teacher out of the classroom, etc. This was such a special experience — just had to share it!

  3. Wow! What amazing photos. Even though we went to Sax-Zim, we were never that close to a great Grey owl. How long did it take you to get those photos?

    • Lynn, we were so lucky. Steve happened to overhear someone at the SZ visitor center talking about all the GGOs on a logging road (county 2) just north of Two Harbors, so we headed over there, drove to the place the guy had told us about, and managed to find a bunch of other people stopped on the road looking at the owls. And luck again that the owl we were watching was not at all shy about all of us oogling it, but was hungry enough to go after not one, but two mice. So, having watched the first attack, I knew what was coming when it got twitchy and was ready with the camera to fire off a few frames. And luck again that Steve happened to be standing right next to where the owl landed! and could see it pick up the mouse. There were really very few birds at SZ this time — sometimes just single individuals or at most a pair, and one small flock of Evening Grosbeaks. Lots of people there, but few birds. Alesches Accommodations were even better than I remembered, and Covid safe!

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