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Hanging out with a family of Great Grey Owls

If you were paying attention during the 60s, you might recall Lazin’ on a Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks. The words and tune comes to mind as I look at these images of a family of Great Grey Owls.

It was indeed a sunny day when three of us ventured to the forests near Merritt, British Columbia in search of the world’s largest owl (by length). Never having seen one of these impressive birds, also known as the Phantom of the North, I was excited and hopeful for my first encounter.

By carefully watching the trees, we eventually found a female with one owlet. I was thankful for my sharp-eyed friends because I didn’t see anything until they pointed them out. The youngster was old enough to fly but taking advantage of the sunny afternoon by lazing on a large branch. When there is a youngster, I learned, the mother is always close by. Indeed, she was, perhaps 50 m away, ready to pounce if a threat appeared. Young owls are tasty treats for other winged predators like eagles. With this understanding, we knew the adult we were watching was the female.

A Hawk Owl’s intense stare.

But being a lazy afternoon, there wasn’t a lot of action, so after 2-3 hours, we went in search of the male, who we presumed was out hunting. What we really hoped for was an image of the Big Daddy flying home with supper. After driving the back roads and hiking the pine forest for a few hours, I was beginning to think we’d seen the best of the day, when suddenly the adult male flew up from the side of road right beside our vehicle and rested on a tree stump a short distance from the road. Such a gift! We spent the next hour with this handsome creature posing for us.

Owls have a way of staring directly at you with great intensity. I’ve seen this with other owls and the penetrating eyes of this adult male was almost intimidating. We watched as he stared, preened, attended to every rustle in the woods and rested. At one point, he was intent on prey inside some bushes and he positioned himself on a treetop and there was that intense stare again. With lightning speed, he pounced to the ground but, as far as we could tell, came up with empty talons. After that, he flew off and our day of owl watching ended with whoops of joy for the show we had been given.

Always during our visits with the owls, we were very careful to be quiet and distant. We knew that if we stressed the owls, it could result in the loss of the owlet. And this is why wildlife photographers generally do not reveal the location of nesting birds.

female owl
Here’s Mom. She’s watchful but enjoying the sunshine. She may not look too large in this picture but the female is actually larger than the male by about 2 inches. Her maximum height is 33 inches with a wingspan of about 4.5 ft.
immature great grey owl
And here’s Junior. With the location of the owlet high in a tree and obscured by branches, this image was the best I could get.
female great grey ow.
I didn’t realize how expressive these animals can be. She seems to be annoyed to have a few spectators.
great grey owl in sunshine
Oh, that warm sun feels so good.
The male flew up from the ground and landed on this stump. I think if we didn’t see him in flight, we would probably have driven right by.
adult male great grey owl in forest
There’s that intense stare. Notice the ‘bow tie’ below the beak, a characteristic of this owl.
a great grey owl yawns
Sorry, are we keeping you awake?
How do you like my Halloween face?
Great grey owl showing his talons
Don’t mess with those talons!
The adult male was statue-like as he stared at the brush below and then suddenly darted down with silent wings in search of prey.
And with a tip of the wings, the magnificent creature was off. Thank you, Mr. Owl!

Being a wildlife photographer

I definitely don’t consider myself a wildlife photographer. I don’t have the patience for it. Someone had to spend a lot of time tramping through the woods to find this family of owls. I’m thankful they guided me to the right spot. And then when you find the animal, you need to wait and wait and wait for the right behaviour and if you’re not ready when it happens, it’s all over. Another challenge is the weather. Even though we enjoyed a sunny day, the light was actually too strong with very dark shadows much of the time. Later in the day, a few clouds softened the light, for which we were very thankful.

But it is so worthwhile when you can observe and record such beautiful creatures.

I was able to keep a respectful distance from the owls because of the telephoto lenses I was using. One was a 200-500 mm lens and the other was a 70-200mm with a tele converter.

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