Column: The Great Grey Owl nest found

Published 8:56 am Thursday, December 8, 2005

By Staff
I'll never forget one particular winter night when we lived, literally, at the end of the road high up in the mountains of Northeastern Washington State. We were so far out there we couldn't even get TV.
From out of the snowy blackness wafted the weirdest noises. It was some sort of creature calls, but nothing resembling anything I'd ever heard before.
I tip-toed out the door and stood silently, listening to the indescribable calls. They seemed to be coming from atop a wooden power pole not far away, but even in the bright, snow reflected moonlight I could see nothing.
I retrieved a powerful flashlight and shined it at the pole top. The calls continued, but there just didn't appear to be anything there. I walked closer and suddenly the top of the pole shifted. Then I could make out a huge owl sitting directly on top of the pole, making a perfect extension of it.
Eyeing it closely through my spotting scope I could see it wasn't a great horned owl for it had no ear tufts. Its head was as slick and round as a worn river rock. Otherwise, it looked like the familiar great horned owl, dark gray with lighter gray mottling, only perhaps a little bigger. Its calls were more on the order of the whinny of a screech owl (but only vaguely) than the haunting hoots of the more similar great horned owl.
Perusal of the bird book revealed it to be a great gray owl, the largest owl in North America. Its body length averages 28 inches and the enormous wings span a full five feet. Great horned and snowy owls are heavier and stronger but can't match the overall dimensions of the great gray.
Many future nights while on game warden patrols I snuggled up on the hood of my truck, soaking up the heat coming off the motor and listening to these same calls. I came to grow quite fond of the great gray.
When we moved back to civilization here in Michigan I wondered if there were great gray owls around here. Most bird books say no, they are strictly a bird of the sub-Arctic boreal forests ranging from Alaska to Quebec and the northern most mountain tops of Pacific Northwest states. That's not entirely true, though. Like the snowy owl, great gray owls do occasionally wander down this far into the banana belt during the dead of winter.
The cause of this irruption is not an escape from unusually nasty weather up north as many think. Great gray owls feed primarily on meadow voles, a mouse like creature common in the north country. Every so often a phenomenon occurs when summer food is unusually plentiful and many young owls are fledged but then the following fall the vole population suffers a catastrophic decline. This happens somewhere within the great gray's range roughly every ten years. With an expansion of owls and depletion of voles some great grays head south in search of more abundant fare.
This irruption tends to be somewhat localized and usually encompasses just a few states. In the winter of 1991-92 a large number of great grays showed up in northern Minnesota, Wisc. and Michigan.
Last winter another Midwest irruption occurred. Though the overall number of great grays was not large, it encompassed the largest area ever recorded. I find no particular vast weather phenomenon that might have caused this so it makes one wonder if something weird is going on in the north country.
To further fuel this question, normally the owls only stay a short while and once stoked up with fuel return north for the late winter breeding and nesting season. This April, though, a great gray owl nest was found in the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula. Did this pair stay on vacation too long and “The Time” simply arrived before they could make it home? Were they fed up with sitting around on a frozen nest with Arctic snows constantly pummeling them? Or, perhaps, they were just having such a good time they forgot to go home. Carpe diem.