Like last week’s bird, the northern shrike, the great gray owl is circumpolar. As much in Eurasia as in North America, this owl is an icon of the North.
Like the shrike, the great gray owl is occasionally common as far south as this. In irruption years, the owls can be abundant — though the Red River Valley is often left out of these events. The great gray owl is a bird of woodlands, and the valley has few to offer the owls.
Nor are owl irruptions uniform across the continent. This year, gray owl sightings have been fairly frequent in northeastern Minnesota. This prompted me to check the northwestern Minnesota bird log, sponsored by the Detroit Lakes Bird Club. Two recent sightings are recorded there, one in Beltrami Island State Forest on New Year’s Eve, and one at mid-month near Lower Red Lake. Both of these points are 100 miles or so distant from Grand Forks, in the open forest that lines the eastern edge of the Red River Valley. Then Brad Dokken, the Herald’s outdoor editor, told of seeing a great gray owl near the border crossing at Pinecreek Minn., in Roseau County. The outdoor editor was in the United States; the owl was in Canada.
As for me? No great gray owls this season.
I do have history with the great gray, however. My best great gray owl story involved Dave Lambeth, dean of local birders. Not long after the 1997 flood prompted Suezette and me to move to higher ground near Gilby, N.D., Lambeth called to report numerous owl sightings along the Lake Agassiz beach ridges an hour or so east of Grand Forks. He suggested a field trip—right now—so I jumped in the car and took off. It wasn’t until we spotted the first of several great gray owls that I realized I hadn’t brought a winter jacket. I was birding in shirt sleeves on a cold winter day.
That winter’s irruption of great gray owls was extraordinary. More than 5,000 of the birds were seen in Minnesota that winter, and one showed up along the Turtle River northwest of Grand Forks. That was more than 10 times more owls than the previous annual record.
For thousands of birders, this was the fulfillment of a birding ambition. The great gray owl is one of the more elusive species for birders keeping lists of birds seen in the Lower 48 states. In North America, the great gray owl’s range extends across the North, dipping as far south as extreme northern Minnesota. A spruce bog tight against the border north of Roseau, Minn., is regarded as one of the most dependable places to find a nesting great gray owl.
The Sax-Zim bog near Eveleth, Minn. — four hours from Grand Forks — is another destination for seekers of great gray owls. Several local birders have posted sightings there on the Grand Cities Bird Club Blog.
Scarcity isn’t the owl’s only attraction to birders. The great gray is remarkable all ’round. It is a big bird; at first glance appearing to be bigger than the great horned owl, which is much more common and much more frequently seen. Appearance is deceiving, however; the great gray owl is mostly feathers. This is an adaptation to live in the cold. The great gray owl has a rounded head with a disc-like face accentuated by concentric rows of feathers. The effect is visually striking; the advantage to owls is to enhance their hearing by directing sound waves to their ears hidden beneath all those feathers. Research has shown that great gray owls can detect the movement of mice beneath a foot and a half of snow; some sources say up to 2 feet of snow.
Scientists generally agree that the owls come south in search of prey. There’s disagreement about the cause of their hunger, though. For years, the consensus was that owls move south when prey populations collapse; more recent research suggests that irruptions occur after especially successful breeding seasons, which increases competition for available food.
Of course, the end result is the same: hungry owls.