…The huge owl suddenly spreads huge wings, flies across the creek, lands on a ponderosa pine branch, and regards me once more with yellow eyes. Although I have never seen this bird in nature or a zoo, I know it is a Great Gray Owl, North America’s largest owl, although not the heaviest. The Great Horned Owl weighs a little more. The Great Gray Owl’s large facial disks of circular feathered areas around the eyes, and lack of ear tufts clearly distinguish it from the Great Horned Owl.
Great Gray Owls are found mostly in Canada, but also in the northern Rockies of Idaho and Montana, and sporadically in the Cascades of Oregon and Washington. A small breeding population inhabits the central Sierras of California. These birds hunt small rodents day or night. They like dense coniferous forest with nearby open spaces, exactly what this owl has found here. Great Gray Owls are not particularly afraid of humans, which explains its close inspection of me.
This is nesting time, so my guess is that this individual staring at me is a male. It’s likely that a female is nearby on what passes for a nest. Great Gray Owls don’t build a nest, but use an old crow or hawk nest, or even a broken off top of a tree. Whatever they choose, they don’t improve it, but take it just as they found it. Two to five eggs are laid, the female begins incubation and at this point massive labor (my opinion) on the part of the male commences.
From incubation of the eggs through to the flying of the young takes about three months. During this entire time dad feeds mom and the kids. Once the young can fly, the female may fly off, leaving the male to feed the young for up to another three months. However, just as often, she stays and helps the male feed their ever–hungry offspring.
Several minutes of mutual inspection pass between the owl and me. Just when I think we’re making friends, the majestic bird takes off down the creek. It lands in the open grove of white fir and aspen on the north bank of the beaver pond. The ground there is barren of grass because people, including me and my family, like to camp beside the pond. Chipmunks and golden–mantled ground squirrels, partly dependent on the occasional campers for food, populate the area. The Great Gray Owl’s hunting method is to perch and wait for some luckless rodent to wander into view, then swoop down and grab it. And, if campers arrive to occupy the owl’s prime hunting ground, there is always the extensive meadow on the other side of the beaver pond.
One of the best things about a slow, wandering walk in country like this is the near certainty of the unexpected. It doesn’t have to be something unusual to please me. A flower I haven’t seen for a long time is enough. But today, the unexpected was truly extraordinary. A Great Gray Owl. When I check the field guide map, I discover the range of this owl does come down into Northern California and into the Sierras. Even so, it is generally uncommon, and I feel lucky to have seen this one.
I wander up the creek for a quarter mile, climb over a low ridge, and find my way back to the car.