Sunday, January 22, 2012 Great Gray Owl!

Seward, Alaska Sporadic Bird Report travels to Homer, Alaska

What a thrill to finally find a long-anticipated Life bird, the GREAT GRAY OWL!

I decided to drive the 176 miles to Homer instead of waiting for possible local delivery. On Friday evening just before sunset, Alice the good dog, and I walked along Beluga Lake to the Calvin and Coyle Trail observation platform, following hardened tracks of snowshoers, skiers, and snowmachines to avoid post-holing. In addition to the numerous snowshoe hare tracks, I found delicate wing brush traces and foot plunge marks where the hare tracks ended. I assume these were made by owls hunting hares traveling at night.

BALD EAGLES perched at the tops of the spruce crying out to each other; a small flock of REDPOLLS swooped overhead, and I heard the "peek!" of a woodpecker. I trudged back as the red-orange sun melted into the horizon, a treat not ever seen in mountainous Seward. 

Saturday afternoon I snowshoed the C&C Trail to the platform itself, wondering if any owls might be resting in view. Snowshoe hare tracks covered almost very square inch of snow; an incredible population boom! The dog was very interested but we didn't see any hares. Moose tracks wound through the birch/spruce forest; I saw numerous places where the huge mammals had bedded down and loads of droppings. Fortunately, I only saw one moose in a meadow, watching us plod away.

Around dusk at 4:30 pm, I set up the scope at the Beluga Lake observation platform past the airport. Aaron kindly stopped by and pointed out where the owls have been seen, just east of the C&C platform. He also pointed out a HAWK OWL sitting quietly, hunting, on a spruce tip nearby. We watched for a long time, the cold penetrating deeper and deeper, until Aaron had to leave.

I watched intently, scanning back and forth with my binocs. Alice woofed and I turned around to see a huge moose on the other side of the cul-de-sac! Whoops! I quickly loaded Alice in the car. The moose seemed uninterested in me and ambled over to a well-browsed bush nearby to feed. I then scanned the lake and the moose alternately. Finally around 5:30, just when the light began to fade for good, I saw two dark shapes dive down from dead snags far across the lake. It was very possible that these were Great Gray Owls, but I couldn't really count them. Regardless, it was wonderful to know they were there.

The bright sunshine disappeared by Sunday, replaced by 2" of fresh snow and dark clouds. I decided to try for a closer view of the owl along East End Road and headed out just after dawn at 9:45 am in a light snowfall.

It was silhouette time: eagles hunched in the naked trees, ravens perched on spruce branches. Suddenly, just east of Kachemak Drive, there was the unmistakable silhouette of a bulky owl with an enormous, sleek, helmet-shaped head. I turned around as quickly as I could and parked as far over as possible without going into the snowy ditch. The GREAT GRAY OWL perched in the top of a tree by a clearing, hunting intently, peering and listening, scanning the whole clearing below for voles.

I could not believe that I was watching North America's largest owl, the Phantom of the North. After all the reports from the Tolsona Campground, Anchorage, Kenai, and Homer, I finally found one!

After a bit, the magnificent owl dropped off the branch and sailed across the clearing, stalled, then landed lower in a bush. It seemed so strange to see a such a flat face without a prominent protruding bill like other birds. The corvids were waking up by now, and first a magpie, then a raven flew over to harass it. The owl merely looked straight up at them and sat firm, minding its own business. Once again the owl flew, this time across the road and into an alder. I quickly drove up and into a conveniently located driveway.

Now I could really see it even though the light was still dim. What an elegant owl! The facial disk of concentric light and dark feathers framed piercing yellow eyes accented by large vertical light gray arcs and smaller dark arcs, almost like shaggy sideways eyebrows. The small orange beak rested just above a surprisingly flashy white "bowtie" with a black "knot." Long loose feathers concealed the feet and long fluffy feathers extended below like a layered skirt above the darker brown tail feathers. The tail feather tips looked quite ragged and worn.

All too soon, the owl flew off to perch on a power line nearby. A few more ravens detoured from their errands to dive and harass it. A NORTHERN SHRIKE boldly made a swift pass at the owl but did not slow down. The owl faced them all, but made no aggressive moves. It sure was hard to focus on breakfast with all these disruptions! The owl made several swoops over the snow, returning without success to the power pole. Finally, it flew back across the road to hunt from the trees below the clearing. Satisfied with my incredible 40 minutes of good fortune, I left. While I would love to see the owl in better light, it was time for the long drive home to Seward.

Happy Birding!
Carol Griswold
Seward Sporadic Bird Report Reporter


  1. Incredible photos. Both the Great Gray, and the buntings.

  2. robin - pinetree22@aol.comJanuary 29, 2012 at 6:23 AM

    Wow! After reading "cloudy" and "dim light" in your description I certainly wasn't expecting to find such great photos at the end of the article. Your photos are fantastic and that Gray Owl is absolutely beautiful. I've only seen Snowy Owls (outside Prudhoe Bay) and the Barred Owls I have on my property (In NJ). I'm jealous of your Gray Owl sighting, but happy for you for getting a lifer.