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on Jun 23, 2009 in Biological Tips

Gray Ghost of the Forest

Reprinted from the BT Journal , Vol.3 Issue 3, August 1998

We’ve just rounded a curve in the road while heading into Canyon, Yellowstone Nat’l Park when out of the corner of my eye, I see this tall, gray form perched on a fallen pine limb on the edge of a clearing. I speed ahead, turn around and drive back, parking at the first pull out. I get out and assemble my F4 and 800f5.6, putting it atop my trusty Gitzo and hustle back to where I’d seen the gray form. It’s late in the day, the last rays of light casting their warm glow on the region. I walk back to the clearing in time to see the Great Gray Owl as it stares back at me. I hurriedly set down my tripod and pointed my lens at the magnificent creature eyeing me when a big, smelly tourist bus stops right behind me, opening its doors for someone to yell out, “what d’ya see?” At that very moment I press the shutter release, exposing the first and only frame as the owl lifted off from its perch to sink deeper into its forested world.

For the rest of the week during our stay in Yellowstone, my family and I kept looking in that same clearing every evening for that owl. We walked the surrounding forest on a couple of days, but we never saw it again. We’ve gone back to Yellowstone many times over the years since that first encounter in 1990, but we’ve never seen the Great Gray Owl there again. Yet it’s that first encounter, standing there in the fumes of that bus that the gray ghost of the forest captured my imagination and fueled a life long passion.

It’s 1998 and the four of us stand in awe in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Perched before us is a male Great Gray Owl on a lone snag. In a clearing amongst a stand of Douglas-fir a stone’s throw from its nest, we watch the male as it calls to its mate hidden up a draw, a deep, throaty call. It calls in a different, shorter hoot to its two young now branchlings amongst the downed timber around us. And it watches us now as we’ve entered its domain. It’s been an hour and a half, 18 rolls of film are in the shot pocket of my vest. The time has gone by way too fast, the encounter all too brief. We’ve just packed it in for the morning when it begins to sprinkle. It’s 24 May, and it’s a good day!

This is an opportunity I have been waiting for and working for a long time! On numerous occasions my good friend Michael Frye has tried to help me photograph these magnificent owls in Yosemite Nat’l Park where all I was able to do was enjoy seeing them fly by. This was the fourth year I had made contact with the biologists working with these owls in Oregon. The previous three years, there had simply been too much rain for me to gamble on the long journey paying off with photographs. The rain had hurt the nesting success so much that I didn’t want to add to the owl’s problems. But this year there were three active nests and we had a window of four days, so off we went. Like so many of our fortunate encounters, this was an experience of a lifetime, being face to face with those big yellow eyes and massive gray facial disk in the serenity of the forest. This is also an experience you too can be a part of, capturing the gray ghost of the forest on film.

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Basic Biology

The Great Gray Owl can be found in many parts of North America, making it extremely accessible to thousands upon thousands of photographers. They breed in North America from central Alaska, northern Yukon, northwestern and central MacKenzie, northern Manitoba, and northern Ontario south locally in the interior along the Cascades and Sierra Nevada to central California; in the Rockies from northern Idaho and Montana to western Wyoming; and to central Alberta, central Saskatchewan, southern Manitoba, northern Minnesota, and south-central Ontario.

They are physically the largest owl in North America. Males have a wing span of 410-447mm and females 430-465mm. Males have a length of 300-323mm and females 310-347mm. Males weigh an average of 936grams and females 1237grams! In comparison, your basic warbler is 7-10 grams. Their coloration though is as basic as they come, gray all over. Yes, there are shades of gray from dark to light, but they’re called great gray for a reason, size and color. To see them fly, the first thing that impresses you is their wing size with their long, broad graceful sail-like wings catching air underneath their plumes.

Their nesting biology is rather straight forward for an owl. The Great Gray Owl does not make its own nest, but rather uses abandoned nests of other raptors especially of the Northern Goshawk. They typically make their nests atop broken snags as well. Owls have a specific nesting biology with their own terms. When the chicks are born, they are called nestlings. At about four weeks old, the nestlings still covered with down and a hint of emerging feathers, leave the nest in a controlled crash to the ground. They then become what is called branchlings. The young scurry about the ground, along downed trees and walk up branches to get fed which is where the term branchling comes from. They stay around the nest area during this time. They become fledglings and start moving out of the nesting territory at a couple of months old. Spring Creek Ecology

The nesting Great Gray Owls of Spring Creek, Blue Mountains Oregon were discovered in 1982. What makes this unique is the area was logged in the 1970’s. The typical habitat for Great Grays is old to virgin forests. What makes Spring Creek truly special in regards to Great Grays is the nesting density of the owls. There are at least eight pairs of Great Grays nesting in a four square mile area! This is a special population also because they have successfully nested every year accept for one since 1982. Great Grays typically nest successfully in a direct relationship to the prey base which for some reason does not come into play with this population as dramatically as with other owl populations.

The logging in the 1970’s created an open, patchwork habitat of tree stands and meadows. These “park-like” stands of Ponderosa Pine with islands of denser stands of Douglas-fir is ideal habitat for the Great Grays. They hunt in the more open Ponderosa Pines and nest in the denser Douglas-fir. The reason they prefer the denser Douglas-fir is the protection it provides for their young from predators such as Great Horned Owls and Northern Goshawks. Certain hilltops and ridges have Forest Service signs signifying they are old stands of Old Growth forest, small islands saved from the ax. But as you travel through the area, the richness of the forest is stunning, the diversity inspiring!

The Great Grays begin courtship in the Spring Creek area during February. The Great Grays are quite vocal during this time. Their calling occurs mostly at night and can be heard as a series of low “whoos.” Owls have a very complex vocabulary which we are only starting to understand, but they have at least 40 different “hoots.” For example, the female’s food begging call, part of courtship consists of a soft two-note “whoo-up.” Incubation starts from mid-March to early April and lasts 30 days. The Great Gray during this time is very hard to find and don’t make a hoot. The female has incubation duty, the male providing her with food while she sits on the eggs. The female also broods the young once they hatch and are nestlings.

To help the Great Gray Owls, the Forest Service has a nesting platform program established in the Spring Creek area. With the loss of some natural nesting platforms (broken snags) from logging the artificial platforms help the owls while the process of nature creates platforms with time.

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Photographing the Owls

On our first afternoon, we head for the first known nesting site. We reach the site a few hours after the rain has stopped. We weave our way through the Douglas-fir grove towards the nesting tree. We are greeted by the call of a Douglas Tree Squirrel as it announces our presence in the forest. We cross fresh track and sign of Rocky Mountain Elk and see a few Mule Deer on the edge of the forest, watching us pass by. We walk a quarter of a mile and come in sight of the nesting platform. We set up our Kenko Pro Field 70 Spotting Scope and check out the nesting platform and surrounding trees, no one. I glass the surrounding forest and spot a Swainson’s Thrush busy foraging, but no owls. We’re too late; this pair has already raised their young and moved off from the nesting territory. We walk back through the forest, looking forward to the next day’s exploration.

The next morning after eating a scrambled egg breakfast in the warmth of our trailer, we head out for the second nest site. It rained during the night and the rain had just stopped and the sun had broken through the clouds as we left our campsite. He arrive on the dirt road heading up the ridge as the clouds start to pile back up, threatening to rain again. Off we set the four of us, my wife, two sons and myself through the forest to the second nest site. I knew the owl was there, I could feel it, but we get to the nesting platform to find nothing. We stop, set up our scope again and begin to look.

I move down the slope ten feet to clear some trees to see across the small clearing in front of us when I spot the male atop a snag across the way. Oh, what a magnificent bird! Our eyes make contact as I look at the male through the bins. I look at the owl, where it’s perched, the background, the foreground and a possible path I could use to walk up and get closer. I leave my wife with the bins and my boys with the scope to keep an eye on the male as I set up my F5 and 600f4. The light level is too low to add the 1.4x, the clouds had begun to come back. I set up as quickly as possible in case the owl took off. I check with my observation team to find the owl is still in the same place.

I ease down the slope towards the clearing and the owl on the other side. My team keeps a watch on the owls as I work my way towards it. The owl knows we’re here, there’s no hiding from those big eyes. I work my way slowly down the slope in plain view of the male, perched atop a dead snag. I watch its eyes and body for any movement suggesting I’m bothering it. At about eighty feet I stop and take my first images. Framing that incredible bird in my viewfinder has my heart racing, the thrill of so many years waiting up to this moment make it hard for me to hold still as I focus on the male. While the owl only fills 1 of the frame, those big, yellow eyes burn into my soul. With the owl’s obvious OK with my presence, I move closer and closer until I have a nearly full frame image. With the cloudy skies and the gray plumage, my F5’s autofocus has a hard time locking on, so I switch to manual focus. I’ve ripped off a couple of rolls of film when I hear the owl make a new hoot and within a couple of seconds it defecates. A voice comes over the radio, my wife telling me it’s defecating, alerting me that it’s about to take flight. Fly it does, about fifty feet to the left to a large branch on a live Douglas-fir.

As the owl takes to the air, those giant wings beat without any effort. The owl seemed to leave just because it felt like moving, giving no sign of being upset by my approach. In fact, by this point in time, my entire family had joined me where I was photographing the owl, all enjoying the experience of being so close to such a magnificent creature. From its new perch, the male hoots, calling to its mate hidden up the draw whom we assume is hunting. I move slowly towards where the male is now perched and within little time, I’m thirty feet away from it. Just as I focus on the owl, the sun comes out shinning a magical beam on the owl. My eye loves the beauty in front of me, my film is screaming in pain.

I can see those big, yellow deep eyes perfectly. But the shadows created by those deep eyes now caused by the sun, darken the eyes so the film can’t see them. The yellow has no sparkle, no life, a problem I hadn’t thought about until I see it through my viewfinder. Where I was hoping for sun to come out to make magic, now I can’t wait until the cloud covers it back up again. I still fire off a couple of rolls and have my oldest son over who has now attached his camera body to my 600mm and is photographing the owl. He just finished his second roll when the owl moves again, this time flying just ten feet to the right, to the top of a broken off snag. This is the photo on the cover of the Journal, a magical moment which didn’t last long. I had taken maybe twenty frames when the male takes flight, this time going up the slope and out of my view. My wife and youngest son radio they have the male in sight. My son and I turn around to go back to the clearing to see we’re being watched!

Totally unknown to us, a branchling had worked its way down the slope and atop a branch right behind us. We knew of a branchling that had popped up way up the slope behind us, but this was a new little guy. Now I knew why the male was moving about; it was staying in a place where it could keep both branchlings in constant view. They are very protective of their young, not hesitating for a second for example, to drive a person into the ground if too close to one of their young. We move cautiously away from the branchling, my wife watching the male to make sure we don’t upset it. We walk around so the branchling is frontlit, grab a few frames of it and then move away.

Already an hour and a half had flown by. The four of us walk back up the slope to where the male has perched and watch it for a few minutes has it starts to call with another new hoot. The skies get dark, too dark to shoot with no opportunity of light coming, so I decide to pack it in. I never spend more than two hours with a nesting bird anyway even when everything is going perfect and with the first sprinkles that reach my head, we leave. As we reach the top of the ridge and look back on the owls to say thanks, we see three sets of eyes staring into ours. The branchlings from their perches and the male from his, watch us as we fade over the ridge. We’re just getting back into the cab of the truck when it starts to really get wet.

We drive down the road to check out the third nest site on our way out. We locate the platform to see a set of yellow eyes staring down over the rim at us. We stay for only a moment to look at the owl before we leave the area altogether. What an incredibly, incredible morning!

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You Can Do It Too!

I first found out about this opportunity through contacting various researchers. I finally found and was put in contact with the lead researcher of these Great Gray Owls. But to my amazement, the information I was seeking is available to anyone in the public. In fact, the Forest Service will mail anyone a map taking them right to the nest sites! Here’s the info you need to make contact:

US Forest Service
La Grande Ranger District
3502 Hwy. 30
La Grande, OR 97850 541.963.7186

Before you get all excited about journeying to Oregon next season, reread what you just read. It took a few years before all the conditions were right before I made my first trip to this locale. I waited until I was sure I would make no impact on the owls. Even though the Forest Service provides maps to every active nest to anyone wanting to see them, I still firmly believe that no photograph is worth sacrificing the welfare of the subject!

I’m not the first person to photograph or write about these magnificent creatures at Spring Creek, nor will I be the last. When you write or call the Forest Service, they will provide you with a brochure on the owl and the area. The backside states an ethical guideline for observing and photographing the owl. We all need to do as these guidelines suggest and more to insure the welfare of the owls and our continuing ability to observe and photograph them in the future. Don’t ever forget that without wildlife, we have nothing to photograph.

Technical Second Thoughts

The overall gray of the Great Gray Owl is such that in low light or shade, the autofocus system cannot lock on. Manual focus or, M/A manual focus is required. As I learned firsthand, full sun can be a mixed blessing. While I’m able to use AF when the sun is out, the shadows on those deep eyes are a killer. The optimal situation would be very early morning or very late evening when the sun is very low to the horizon. At this low angle, the sun is able to shine directly into and light up those magnificent yellow eyes.

You best be a master of light, because flash ain’t going to work for you here! Someone is probably wondering why “Mr. Flash” didn’t simply put a flash on the lens by using the Really Right Stuff extender bar to put light in those eyes? The reason is really simple. Those giant eyes just don’t work with flash, I’ve seen it tried. The other reason is physical. Moving about the forest with that big bracket while trying to maneuver through branches is difficult at best. Also trying to get a clear shot through the branches with the lens is difficult enough without trying to also align the flash. Photographing Great Grays requires you to be a master of light, no ifs, ands or buts about it!

If you head for our web site, you’ll see that first, blurry image I took of the Great Gray Owl in Yellowstone. Too awful to waist precious Journal page space, but I want you to see what lit my passion for these beautiful creatures. Success photographically doesn’t necessarily come with the first frame or first encounter with a subject. But quite often, the first encounter can start a lifelong quest for either that subject, family, photograph, perfection or desire to be the best. The magic of wildlife photography comes in many forms, the rewards from an incredible array of possibilities. Follow your passion, seek to perfect your craft and chase that impossible subject. You will find the rewards your photography can bring to you!

Further Reading References

The Great Gray Owl – Phantom of the Northern Fores t by Robert W. Nero, ISBN#0-87474-672-8
North American Owl – Biology and Natural History by Paul A. Johnsgard, ISBN#0-87474-560-8