A great gray owl perches in an aspen tree on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Colin Canterbury/USFWS)

Refuge notebook: Winter is the season for finding great gray owls

  • By DAWN ROBIN MAGNESS Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
  • Wednesday, February 24, 2021 2:30am
  • SportsOutdoors

Winter can be a fantastic time to observe owls. Owls can be very secretive, sitting quietly in trees with color patterns that provide effective camouflage.

Great gray owls are large, but are hard to see. January through March is the best time to find great grays according to ebird data.

Ebird (www.ebird.org) is a website managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that catalogs data from citizen scientists and uses the information to create wonderful products like dynamic range maps and checklists with seasonal abundance information.

Great grays are not very vocal outside of the breeding season, but are starting to pair up and inspect nesting sites in January. Territorial calls, a repetitive series of low-pitched and even hoos made by both the male and female can alert us to their presence.

Many birders will never have the opportunity to see or hear a great gray because they only live in the more remote and dense forests of the boreal region that we call home. Great grays can be irruptive, showing up in large number from Northern populations when food is available.

They are the largest and tallest owl, though not the heaviest, with a big, round head. Great grays are silvery gray overall with a streaky appearance. They have large facial discs around their yellow eyes with prominent white patches at the bottom of the disc that are sometimes described as a “bow tie.”

The great horned owl is our other large owl, but it can be distinguished from the great gray by the two conspicuous “horns” sticking up on the top of the head. Great horned owls will kill the lighter great grays.

Great grays are active at night and at dusk and dawn. They hunt from perches by listening for prey moving under the snow. They can swoop down, hover and plunge through the snow crust to grab prey with their strong talons.

Voles are a big part of their diet, though other prey, such as smaller birds, other small mammals and even wood frogs, are eaten too. Plunge marks can be found on the snow where great grays have been hunting, ringed by sweeping marks made by their wings as they take back off.

Great grays live in very cold conditions and have adapted to be able to withstand the harsh environment and times of low food availability. Sometimes, great grays appear docile or tame when found. They are likely conserving energy to avoid starvation in the lean winter months. In the summer, their efficient and warm plumage makes them hot and they will seek shade.

Great gray owls live in spruce forests that are interspersed with open spaces such as peatland bogs. They utilize nests built by other large birds, such as raptors or ravens.

When they find a good nest, great grays will use the same place for years. Some of us will be lucky enough to have great grays nesting on our property. Others will be lucky enough to observe great grays while enjoying outdoor activities. I try to remember how special it is to live among these big owls.

Dr. Magness is a landscape ecologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more information at https://www.fws.gov/refuge/kenai/ or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.


By DAWN ROBIN MAGNESS

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge


More in Sports

Soldotna's Ezekiel Miller controls Kenai Central's Owen Whicker at 130 pounds Friday, April 9, 2021, at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. Miller won by major decision, 11-1. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Wrestling: SoHi hosts Kenai; Nikiski hosts Seward, Homer

Kenai Peninsula wrestlers continued to compete in unscored dual meets last Friday.… Continue reading

The top three fish of this year's Winter King Salmon Tournament hang on a wall before a closing ceremony announcing the winners Saturday, March 24, 2018 on the Spit in Homer, Alaska. This year's winning fish weighed 24.6 pounds. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament returns this Saturday

After one-year hiatus, winter king tournament is back with COVID safety restrictions

Michael Armstrong is properly outfitted for an Arctic summer hiking trip in this photo taken in 1989 along the Wulik River in northeastern Alaska. (Photo by Charles Barnwell.)
Out of the Office: Living in Alaska is a lifetime in learning

From boots to parkas, there’s lots to figure out about surviving in the Last Frontier

Homer High School. (Homer News file photo)
Sports in brief

Upcoming events Practice continues for girls and boys soccer, baseball, softball and… Continue reading

Kardinal Morgan Starks, tops, wrestles Mariner Bruce Graham, bottom, in a meet on Tuesday, April 6, 2021, in the Alice Witte Gym at Homer High School in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
Area wrestlers compete in duals

The Homer wrestling team has been participating in unscored dual meets to… Continue reading

Kenai Central’s Owen Whicker controls Soldotna’s Cassius Miller on the way to a 7-5 victory Friday, April 2, 2021, at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Wrestlers sharpen skills with local meets

By JEFF HELMINIAK Peninsula Clarion Kenai Peninsula wrestling teams continued to sharpen… Continue reading

Homer High School. (Homer News file photo)
Sports in brief

Upcoming events Practice continues for girls and boys soccer, baseball, softball and… Continue reading

Melting ice patch in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. (Photo provided by National Park Service)
Refuge Notebook: Ice patch archaeology

Alaska’s mountains and glaciers are beautiful to observe, and many of us… Continue reading

Homer High School. (Homer News file photo)
Sports in brief

Upcoming events Practice continues for girls and boys soccer, baseball, softball and… Continue reading

Most Read