Monday, October 11, 2010

Great Gray Owl!!!!!

The past 2 days have not turned out as planned because the pelagic trip out of Half Moon Bay was cancelled late yesterday morning due to high seas. As a result, I went to Yosemite and met up with Wes Fritz to try again for the great gray owl. After checking into our motel in Oakhurst, a small resort town south of the south entrance to Yosemite NP, we drove about 25 miles up to the town of Wawona to check out a long time great gray site. It is a 9 hole golf course that abuts a good sized alpine meadow. For years many birders found their life great gray here, but the bird has been much less reliable at Wawona the past couple of years. Plus, they are repaving the road, so after a quick look around, we decided to drive up to Glacier Point road.

It takes about 45 minutes of additional driving to reach McGurk meadow. This is the place that a great gray was seen by other birders 3 weeks ago when I first tried for the owl at Yosemite but came up short. We hiked the 15 minutes down to the meadow from the road, arriving at dusk. We ran into another birder who had been searching the meadow for over an hour but had not seen an owl. He joined up with us, and we went to the place where the owl had been seen 3 weeks earlier.

We settled down on a couple of logs, and began to hear a female great gray calling up the meadow. Its call was getting increasingly louder, so we knew it was working its way towards us. Earlier that afternoon I was talking to a friend about going after the owl, and she told me that at dusk we would have it fly by us. Sure enough the great gray flew about 30 feet above our heads as it moved down the meadow. In the essentially moonless nite you clearly could see that it was a great gray by its size and shape, but it was mostly just a silhouette against the cloudless sky. After about 30 minutes of stumbling around in the dark in an effort to follow its call but not seeing it again, we hiked back out to our car, and went back down to Oakhurst for the nite.

This morning Wes and I went back into Yosemite before sunrise. We arrived at Glacier Point after 1st lite, and I took the top picture of Half Dome. We went to the Point first in an effort to see some sooty grouse, but none were about that early, so we went back to McGurk meadow to try to get photos of a great gray. On our way down to the meadow we did get a nice look at a black-backed woodpecker, but after 30 minutes in the meadow we found no owls.

We then went to a different site that I had also tried 3 weeks ago to no avail. As soon as we stepped out of the car we heard a female calling, and then a male responding. We walked out thru the meadow, thru a band of trees, and entered a smaller 2nd meadow. As we came into the next meadow the male owl flushed and flew further down the meadow. We then starting hearing juveniles calling for food. After about a 100 yards of walking we found the juveniles, and soon the 2 parents flew into nearby trees. The middle and bottom photos are of each of the parents (click on photo to enlarge).

We hung out with the family group for about 30 minutes, following them further into the woods. Wes said it was the absolute best great gray owl sighting he had ever had. I had first seen great grays in Minnesota back in January of 2005 when so many had come down out of Canada that you could see 1 every mile as you drove down the highway. But this encounter was so special because of the family group, our closeness to the birds, the different calls of the male, female and the kids, and the beautiful sunny morning.

The past 2 days for me qualify as another "red letter day". Being able to bird with Wes, who is such a good birder, was a real treat. And finally seeing the great gray owl after putting in so much time in Minnesota in January and again in June, plus looking in July in Oregon, and 3 weeks ago at Yosemite. The great gray had become my toughest bird of the year. It is also a "red letter day" because the owl was the last of the really tough birds for me to find during this big year. All the rest of the birds that I might see during the rest of 2010 will not require days of looking as the owl did. So you could say I am now definitely on the downhill side of this yearlong birding and travel adventure.

18 more birds were seen for the week, and the owl brings the YTD up to 686. After retracing my drive route from yesterday, I am back down near San Diego tonite because this morning a rare vagrant--the red-throated pipit--was found just outside of San Diego. I will be at the site early tomorrow. Stay tuned!


  1. Way to go guys. Congrats on the owl. Persistence pays off.

    Bob Ake

  2. My husband just ran into a Great Gray Owl in the Wawona Meadow, just south of the edge of the golf course, about 9:45AM, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. The owl was sitting on a stump near the meadow loop trail and Stan was riding his bike. He was sitting so quietly and only about 10 feet from the trail, just looking at Stan. Stan talked to him and he flew up to a nearby tree where he had to peek around a branch to see as Stan talked to him. The owl talked back, making low squeaking sounds. Stan rode his bike underneath him, and when he looked at the owl, the owl made a face at him as if that was unacceptable behavior, and so Stan took that as his que to leave, so he did. It was an exciting encounter with the Great Gray Owl of Wawona.