Great Gray Owls - Phantoms of the North

By Dr. Robert Berdan
March 30, 2013


Great gray owl on fence post in winter snowstorm by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl resting on a barb wire fence near Bragg Creek, AB in a May snowstorm. Nikon D300 and 70-200mm f/2.8.

One of my photographic fantasies was to photograph a great gray owl in a snow storm and a few years back it became a reality. I was driving back from Waterton with fellow photographer Hälle Flygare when it started snowing heavily south of Bragg Creek. Out of the side of my eye I spotted an owl sitting on a fence and after coming to a quick stop in a foot of snow, we jumped out of the vehicle and started shooting pictures. When I checked my LCD screen none of the photos was in focus because it was snowing so hard. So I switched to manual focus and started firing away. The owl took off a few minutes later, but I managed to capture a few pictures of the bird on the fence and a couple in flight (see above and below). I was on a photographers high for the rest of the day.

Great Gray Owl flying in snowstorm by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl flying in a snowstorm (Nikon D300, 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens manual focus hand held).

The great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) is the largest though not the heaviest owl in North America. Snowy owls and great horned owls can be more massive. Great gray owls sometimes abbreviated GGO's are primarily nocturnal but may hunt during the day in winter and especially in the morning and evenings. They can grow between 24-33 inches in length and live up to 12 years in the wild. Males, as in most owls, are smaller then the females but otherwise look identical. GG0's are typically found in northern boreal forests and coniferous wooldlands and can usually be found near open areas such as meadows and bogs where they hunt for rodents. They are permanent residents but may migrate south when food is scarce. In North America these owls are distributed from the West Coast to as far east as Quebec (see map below).


Map showing the distribution of Great gray owls around the world


World Wide Distribution of great gray owls (Map source Wikipedia).

Great gray owls are often seen perched on old broken trees, fence posts and telephone poles where they wait, listen and watch for prey. Their large facial discs known as ruffs help focus sound, and the asymmetrical placement of their ears assists them in locating prey. They can hear and locate a mouse as much as two feet (60cm) under the snow. Their most important food source is voles, though they will also prey on hares, moles, shrews, weasels, thrushes, grouse, gray jays, small hawks and even ducks. Great Gray owls can eat as many as 6-8 voles per day.


Closeup of the face of a great gray owl by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl side view showing the large facial disk and bright yellow eyes. Yellow eyed owls have the most wide spread hunting habits, some being either strictly nocturnal, crepuscular or diurnal and others with various combinations of preference (www.pauldforst.co.uk/intro_o.html). Vision is the most important sense for birds, since good eyesight is essential for safe flight. Most owls have many rods and few cones in their retina so many of them only see in black and white. A thin tissue called the iris is responsible for the yellow color. Owls also have three eyelids to help protect them. They have a upper and lower eyelid and a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane that forms a thin clear layer across the eye that protects the surface.


Head shot of Great Gray owl by Robert Berdan ©


Having two eyes facing forward helps the owl estimate distance when hunting. Great gray owls also lack ear tufts. The "Ear Tufts" visible on some species of owls are not ears at all, but simply display feathers.


Great gray owl sitting on a fence near Millarville by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl sitting on a fence near Midland, Ontario


Greay gray owl on fence by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl on fence post near Millarville, Alberta photographed in early morning light. Great grays hunt in the forest margins and natural forest openings. Their preferred nesting sites appear to be stands of Tamarack, black spurce and mature populars. All my sightings of great gray owls have been around open fields surrounded by dense forest made up of aspen and pine.

Great Gray owl in flight by Robert Berdan ©

Great gray owl hunting - this one captured a vole and swallowed him in one gulp. For tips on how to photograph owls in flight see my article "How to Photograph Birds in Flight". Great gray owls are fairly tolerant of people and sometimes I have been able to approach within a few feet. I watched and photographed this owl hunt for over 2 hours near Millarville, next to the highway.

Great gray owl in aspen tree by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl in Aspen tree near Millarville, AB


Great gray owl on fence by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl scanning an open field for voles.


Great gray ow on broken tree by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owls will often perch on broken tree stumps.

Young great gray owl by David Lilly ©Great gray owls will often nest in broken tree tops and cavities in large trees. They also nest in abandoned hawk nests and don't build their own nests. They nest from March to May, with 3-4 eggs being a common clutch size. The female incubates the eggs for about 30 days, brooding lasts 2-3 weeks. The young jump or fall from the nests and start to fly about 1-2 weeks later. The young are good climbers. Young are preyed on by eagles, lynx, martens. other owls, bears, fishers, and Northern Goshawks.


Chicks often leave the nest even before they can fly as an antipredator strategy. So the chicks disperse by jumping to the ground where their parents continue to feed and protect them. One in three chicks falls prey to predators or starves. The parents are very protective and will attack bears, lynx and even an unwary hiker if they get too close to the young.


The photo of the young great gray owl on the left was taken by David Lilly in Kananaskis. See more photos by David on his web site the Canadian bird photographer.



Great gray owl in aspen tree by Robert Berdan ©


The plumage and markings of great gray owls helps to break up their shape and camouflage them.



Great gray owl series showing and owl take off from its perch along Grande Valley Road, AB


Great gray owl taking off by Robert Berdan ©


Take off starts with leaning into the wind



Great gray owl in flight by Robert Berdan ©


At first the feet dangle below the owl - note the legs are covered in feathers.



Great gray owl gliding silently by Robert Berdan ©


The bird glides silently through the air. (Nikon D300 300 mm f/2.8 lens & 1.7X teleconverter)


Great gray owl flying head on by Robert Berdan ©


This owl flew right towards me and then landed in front of me on a post as if to say "Go ahead and take my picture".


Great gray owl on fence looking backward by Robert Berdan ©


This great gray owl landed on a post directly in front of me. I was joined by several other photographers and still the bird choose to ignore us. Some species of owl can rotate their heads 270 degrees because they have extra vertebrae in their neck that allows for this rotation. Since an owls eyes are fixed rotating the head allows the bird to scan a wide area and look behind.


Great Gray owl hunting by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray hunting for Voles next to Grande Valley Road.

The term phantom of the north refers to the fact that great gray owls, like other owls, are silent in flight. In contrast on a quiet winter day I can hear the wing beats of a Raven as it flies bye me. Owl feathers are different and have built in sound damping features. Owl feathers have small down hairs all over their surface and this causes turbulence that prevents pressure waves that create sound. An owl's primary feathers are serrated and this design breaks down turbulence into smaller currents called micro-turbulences. See Silent flight of the owl for closeup photos of their feathers on this web site link.

Great gray owl on broken tree by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl resting on broken tree near Millarville, AB


Great Gray Owl in flight by Robert Berdan


Diving for a vole. (Nikon D800, 300 mm f/2.8 and 1.7X teleconverter).



Great Gray owl capturing a vole.


Capturing a vole


Great gray owl feeing on a vole by Robert Berdan


Feeding on a vole - often the owls appeared to kill the rodents with their feet, bite their necks, and then swallow them whole.

Adult great gray owls are normally silent though the song of the male is a very deep evenly spaced whoo, whoo, whoo - listen to the sound recording of a Great Gray Owl at The Cornell Lab of Ornitholog by clicking here.


Great grY owl on fence post in Spring by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl on fence in early morning light near Millarville, AB


Great gray owl in winter near Midland, Ontario by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl near Midland, Ontario (70-200mm f/2.8 lens, Nikon D300).


Great gray owls have a thick layer of feathers to insulate them against the cold.


Great gray ow in the snow by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl searching for rodents in a farm field near Midland, Ontario.


Great gray owl in field by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl resting on an old building strut near Midland, Ontario. This was one of many great gray owls that migrated to fields around Midland, February 14, 2005 and was part of an owl irruption. Every few years, great gray owls may move en masse from their boreal breeding grounds in search of food and the process is called an irruption. When one occurs it can bring out birders and nature photographers on masse that I like to call "a photographer irruption".


Great gray owl in aspen tree by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owls are often easier to spot in the trees in winter and spring time.

It is estimated their are about 10,000 to 50,000 great gray owls in North America, but no one knows for sure how many birds there are. The greatest threat to the owl is deforestation. Finding and photographing one of these birds is a rare privilege and while I am always on the lookout for them they are much harder to find in my experience then snowy owls. The great gray owl is the provincial bird of Manitoba and this bird is ranked as number six among the fifty or so most-wanted birds to see by birders.



Great Gray owl in flight by Robert Berdan ©


Capturing a great gray owl in flight requires patience as they take off from their perch.


Great gray owl in flight by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl diving from its perch after a vole.

Great Gray Owl by Robert Berdan ©


Great Gray owl with forest in background photographed next to Grande Valley Road Nikon D800, 70-200 mm f/2.8.


Great gray owl on fence next to Grande Valley Road by Robert Berdan ©


This owl let us approach within a few feet - Grande Valley Road, 70-200 mm f/2.8 Nikon D800.


Kamal Varma standing next to a Great Gray Owl by Robert Berdan ©


Fellow photographer Kamal Varma - next to Great Gray Owl.


Great gray owl and Robert Berdan by Kamal Varma ©


A Great gray owl after feeding on a vole lands on a fence post beside the author (note no bait of any kind was used to coax the owl). The same owl is shown below flying off after feeding. What an awesome experience.


Great Gray Owl in flight hunting by Robert Berdan


Great gray owl in aspen tree by Robert Berdan ©


Great Gray owl on post in snowfall by Robert Berdan ©


To find these birds you first must go to their habitat - coniferous forests (Tamarack and black spurce) with wide open spaces such as a field or muskeg where they hunt. Look for their pellets and poop, listen for the bird calls and visit local nature and birding web sites for reports on their sightings. Also get out early in the morning when they are still hunting. In winter and spring time they are easier to spot in the trees. Around Calgary good locations include the foothills, Grande Valley Road, Kananaskis country, Brown Lowery Park and the Millarville area. I find that a good pair of binoculars can be helpful - scan the forest edge around open fields. To photograph owls in flight a 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens or 300 mm f/2.8 or f/4 lens is ideal and put the camera in continous high shooting mode. Lenses with longer focal length will let you fill the frame but they are also more difficult to keep the bird in the frame when it starts to fly. If you are patient and willing to watch for a few hours you will likely get a chance to see the owl fly and maybe even watch the bird catch some of its prey. RB


Great Gray owl at sunset on fence post Grande Valley Road by Robert Berdan ©


Great gray owl at sunset - Grande Valley Road, fill flash -3 EV, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, Nikon D800.



Question: Are owl pellets poop?


Owl pellets are pieces of fur, bones, teeth, and any other indigestible parts that the owl is unable to digest, which are then regurgitated. Droppings are what is digested while pellets are what cannot be digested, so they are not the same thing. Source Wiki answers. To learn more and view pictures of pellets visit this web site. To learn more about owls see my recommended reading list below.


Great Gray Owl pellets Dr. Wayne Lynch.


Great Gray Owl Pellets - photo provided by Dr. Wayne Lynch - check out Dr. Wayne Lynch's web site.

Acknowledgement: I thank Dr. Wayne Lynch for reading the article and making suggestions regarding the accuracy of the content, any errors that remain are my own.



* Watch this amazing video of a Great Gray Owl hunting and how it uses it's sense of hearing to catch a vole under the snow. - by the BBC.




Additional References

References & Recommended Reading


Wayne Lynch (2007) Owls of the United States and Canada. Johns Hopkins. ISBN 0-8018-9687-2 (See my review of Wayne's Owl Book). In short the best book on owls ever printed.

James Duncan (2003) Owls of the World. Key Porter Books. ISBN 1-55263-214-8

J.F. McDonald ed. (1993) A Bird-finding Guide to the Calgary Region by Calgary Field Naturalists' Society (One of the best books describing driving routes where you can find certain birds around Calgary). ISBN 0-921224-05-2.


Atlas of Breeding Birds of Alberta - Federation of Alberta Naturalists - view online version.




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