The Gray Ghost

The Great Gray Owl stands near the top of every serious bird watcher’s most-wanted list.” That’s how Robert W. Nero, Manitoba ornithologist, began the Foreword of his book, The Great Gray Owl: phantom of the northern forest (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980).

I may be more of a hobby birder than a “serious” one, but until yesterday, that owl was right at the top of my wanna-see list. We just completed a jigsaw puzzle of Robert Bateman’s painting, Ghost of the North. I think it was simply the right time to get my prize!

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My interest in birding began in a small way when I lived in PEI, took firmer hold when I lived in Saskatchewan in the 80s and 90s, and has stayed strong ever since. Dr. Nero gave a presentation on his extensive Great Gray Owl studies at a Regina Natural History Society meeting. I was fascinated by his stories of capture that involved a fishing rod and lure (an artificial mouse) for banding to gather biological data. I even used such a scene in a short story once (still unpublished).

I bought Nero’s book (maybe his first of 9), and that’s when the owl went onto my own list. I never had an opportunity to see one when they emerged from the boreal forests into the southern prairies. Nor did I get lucky on subsequent birding trips to likely habitat. So when reports of Great Grays became more frequent around my Shuswap area home recently, the time was right.

Great Gray on the wing

Great Gray on the wing

Late afternoon is prime hunting time for owls which feed on small mammals such as mice. The large Great Gray will often perch low to the ground on a fence post at the edge of an open field, slowly turning its head, aiming its huge facial disk to capture tiny sounds. Super sensitive hearing is the key to success locating mice beneath the snow. This owl also seems to be a creature of habit, so will haunt a particular area repeatedly. And that’s what gives determined birders their chance. The Great Gray is #501 (and the 11th owl species) on my Life List.

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