Return of the Great Grey Owl

The Link Magazine
Behind the pie-shaped face of this Great Grey Owl hides a pair of the most fine-tuned ears to be found anywhere in the known physical world. Photo: Tim Dyson

The Link, Spring 2017
| by Tim Dyson |

There is much in nature that seems predictable. We learn over time many things to expect from the change of seasons. In the spring, flowers emerge from the ground, birds return from southern places and leaves burst forth from the branches of deciduous trees as the days grow longer and warmer.

Still, lots of unpredictable things happen, but only when conditions are right. One such occurrence is a visit from a very unpredictable bird – the Great Grey Owl.

As I write this in the end of February, more than a dozen or so of these beautiful creatures have been spotted in Peterborough County over the past two weeks…including one I saw myself while out for an evening ‘owl search’ with a friend. The largest owl you will ever hope to see, the Great Grey has a large round head, no ear tufts and small yellow eyes. As the name suggests, most of their feathers are a wonderful mix of various shades of grey.

“…a rare chance to see one of nature’s most unusual creatures up close.”

Secretive birds that usually winter deep in the boreal forest, they seldom leave that habitat unless driven to by the need to feed themselves. Exactly why they embark on their occasional and sometimes long journeys has been a topic of debate among people for some years. However, deep snow and layers of ice within the snow make it very difficult to access the voles they seek as food. When vole populations crash the owls move far out of their normal range and this is called an irruption. Some travel hundreds of kilometres and stay for several weeks dining on the ‘bumper crops’ of voles where their populations are peak.

Vole populations are known to be somewhat cyclic in nature and peak, and typically peak/crash every five-to-six years in different areas at different times. When a widespread low occurs over much of the boreal forest and surrounding areas and a high is reached in this area, only then should we expect to see the owls turn up here in good numbers.

Usually we only see these owls this far south in winter and spring. By the time you read this, you may still be able to see one yourself as many lingered here throughout much of the spring in 2005 and there were even a few still around in July! However, that visit was truly the exception. Usually you won’t see many (if any) past early May.

In September 2004 many in the north began to show movement out of the deep woods. After a slow and steady movement west, south and eastward, known as the “The Big Flight,” the birds began arriving in the Kawarthas about a week before Christmas. There was an estimated 500-plus recorded in Peterborough County alone! This year we don’t expect there will be nearly so many.

The Great Grey Owl tends to be a creature of habit once it has found an area with plenty of food to satisfy its requirements. Therefore, it is relatively easy to find one in the same place day after day and sometimes for several weeks at a time. The key is knowing when to look and where. Most often active and conspicuous out hunting during the first three hours of morning daylight and the last three hours of afternoon/evening daylight, the Great Grey Owl can be found in woods, open country-like farm fields, forest edges and marsh borders. However, if it is snowing it can be found to be active at any time of the day.

Irruptions of these owls provide everyone a rare chance to see one of nature’s most unusual creatures up close. If you happen to spot one, you’ll never forget it.

Enjoy the spring…the Great Grey Owls will take winter back north with them when they go!