It’s been a little over two months since I saw the Great Gray Owl. January 6th, to be exact, in Kingsville, Ontario, Canada. It was my first Great Gray Owl, Strix nebulosa, a bird I’ve been coveting for years, ever since I realized that I had missed the Great Gray Owl invasion of 2004-5. This was the bird I most wanted to see in 2012.
The owl was first reported on December 23rd, 2011 and it was a big deal. There are Great Gray Owls in Ontario, but not in the southwest, near the shore of Lake Erie, a half-hour southeast of Windsor, just across the Ambassador Bridge and 20 minutes west of Pt. Pelee. This was a Great Gray Owl that could be easily seen. If you lived in Michigan or Ohio or Ontario.
I lusted after the Great Gray Owl in frustration for weeks till I realized that in early January I would be in a place, let’s say Chicago, that was only a short drive, let’s say 5.5 hours, away. The owl was not being seen regularly at that point. I had contacted a couple of local birders, hoping it was one of those situations where people just weren’t reporting it, which seemed crazy to me, but it was rural Canada, a town of around 20,000 people, so–who knew? The absence of news was not promising, but sometimes one needs to trust the birding goddess. I got into my rental car and drove east.
My path took me through Indiana, where I chanced on a Snowy Owl (thank goodness for birders who point out owls to strangers) at a place called Port of Indiana on Lake Michigan, which turned out to be a guarded industrial area, not a real port. Here is a digiscoped photo of the owl, taken before the security people showed up and threatened to take away my camera.
It was dark by the time I got to the Ambassador Bridge, barely visible behind construction and detour signs. Night in Windsor, coffee at Tim Horton’s, time to go for the bird. It was only then I realized that not only could I not use my iPhone to check the Ontario listserv or to call the local birders, I couldn’t use the GPS function to find my way to the bird. I was in Canada, a foreign country, helpless without my phone.
A little more coffee and I realized I needed to go east. And south. And east, towards the sun. I knew I was in the right place when I recognized the street signs, set far apart in this rural area comprised of very large rectangles of fields and woods. The owl was not at its last location. This was o.k. because sometimes you want to do a little work to find the bird. Calling on expertise imparted by my birding mentors, I did that sophisticated thing you do when looking for a famous rarity: drive around and look for the big cameras. And, it worked!
I saw the small mob of photographers and tripods on McCain Side Road, south of the intersection with Road Two. Pulling over behind the line of cars, I jumped out, camera and scope in hand. I assumed the owl was much further down the road, beyond the crowd, and started running. Then I stopped. I had left my bins in the car. I stood in the road for a second, stuck between running to see the owl immediately, before it flew off as it undoubtedly would, and taking a minute to retrieve my binoculars. And then, my problem was solved. A large dark being flew out from the clutch of photographers, aimed straight towards me, and perched on a branch of a tree on the edge of the road, 6 feet away. “Well,” I said to myself, “I guess I won’t need the binoculars.” This was my first view of my Great Gray Owl. I was in love. And, I think he was in love with me.
Because, this is what happened: After gasping and staring and photographing and some more gasping and staring, I walked across the road to put my scope in a safe place, away from cars and the photographers, who were awkwardly running up the road with their cameras and tripods. I stood by my car, parked in front of the only house on the street. I looked up. The owl was flying across the road to a short tree in front of me, and then onto this post, a little lower down. Directly in front of me. The photographers looked at me suspiciously, then ran across the road and set up their tripods on either side of me. I started wondering if the owl would follow me into my car, but figured it would be hard to explain the bird to immigration control.
The Great Gray Owl was not as large or as massive as I had imagined; his shape had a compact, tapering quality, and the shape of the head changed as he stretched and preened. His colors were lovely, gray and ecru (o.k., off-white), brown, and all shades in-between, changing with the light. The thin line of white feathers under his face, his bow-tie, gave him a natty, dressed-for-success-but-a-little-worn-out look. His eyes, when he chose to open them, were that incredible neon-bright yellow, but mostly they were hooded, set far back in his head. I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphize, but I couldn’t help wonder what the owl was feeling. Sometimes he looked gentle, other times, very stern and impatient with us humans.
Here is one of my favorite photos. I was wondering if those indentations indicated where the owl’s ear openings were, so I asked my very knowledgeable birder friends via Facebook. Allison Shock, also known as Three-Star Owl, replied, “That may not be the actual opening where the wind has parted the plumage, but it’s close — the ear openings are right behind the rows of stiffened feathers in the facial disc. You’ve got yourself a real case of “Half Dome Head” there! Allow me to rudely quote myself: Half-Dome Head: the Geology of Owl Crania.” Allison is a sculptor as well as a birder, so she needs to know about things like skulls and feathers. Please, read her article. She does a great job describing technical things in language we can all understand, such as why the Great Gray Owl’s face is shaped like a radar dish and why the head is shaped like the granitic dome formation, Half Dome, in Yosemite Valley, California,
Another Facebook friend, birder photographer Christopher Ciccone, wrote, “Some additional cool info… the sides of the skull are right next to the outside edge of the eyes – the rest of that big head is all feathers! Also, the ear holes are not even – one is higher than the other to help them hear in 3d. Very cool adaptions!!” I knew about the all-feathers fun fact, which is pretty amazing. I did not know about the asymmetrical ear holes. And, according to the Lab of O’s Birds of North America, it also has an asymmetrical skull! The left external ear opening is directed further upwards than the right external opening; this gives the owl very precise directional hearing.
A lot of birders had traveled to see this owl, but the day I was there, I felt like I was the only birder in the crowd. There were photographers and local people and me. Some of the people who lived in the area had seen the bird almost every day. Mothers came with their kids, businessmen stopped their cars on the road to ask how it was doing, police waved. Still, I was concerned. People were getting very close to the owl. The photographers stood in front of it, and on the rare occasions when the owl faced them and open his eyes, all their cameras went off at once. Hey, if I were a Great Gray Owl, I would not be happy about that. What? You only love me full frontal with my eyes open? “You have wings,” I told the owl telepathically, “Use them.”
And, he did. He flew off, across the fields, into the woods. The photographers looked after him wistfully, shrugged their shoulders, and said, “Lunch break.” The locals went home. I went off in search of more Snowy Owls, and to see the entrance of that mythical place, Pt. Pelee. It would be nice to see my Great Gray Owl again, but if he wanted to take the rest of the day off, find a hidden field where he could hunt for mice in peace, that was fine with me.
Postscript: The Great Gray Owl was not seen again that day, and by mid-January he was gone. Maybe. Someone said they saw him last week, March 15th, on the east side of Kingsville, but no one else was able to find it. I like that idea. The owl is out there, on the shores of Lake Erie, successfully eluding the people who would adore it.