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Warm wet weather brings out the Great gray owls

Living the Wild Life

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Bill Schiess,

With over 100 inches of snow in Island Park in February, birds are having a tough time getting around and finding enough to eat – especially the owls.

Many owls, including the Great grays, have now been forced to move to the lower valley where they found crusted snow making it difficult for them to find food. With the recent warmer weather though the snow has softened and shallowed it so the owls can harvest rodents under the soft sloppy snow.

“This morning we had two owls in our backyard,” said a message from a friend on my answering machine when I got home from fishing on Tuesday evening. Wednesday evening I stopped by the friend’s house to talk to the family and I saw a Great gray fly into a grove of trees.

When I got to where I thought it had flown; sure enough it was sitting in a tree waiting for me just begging to become a celebrity. As I was snapping pictures, a larger Great gray flew past me, landing on an irrigation wheel line. I positioned myself so that I could watch both as I expected them to attack rodents from the perches as the light began to fade.

It did not take long as the larger, probably the female, flew about 10 yards, dove into the eight inches of soft snow, came up with a vole and swallowed it whole. Fluffing its feathers in the rain, it flew back to its perch. The smaller owl was not to be out-done; it too harvested some warm meat for dinner – but that was just the first course. It soon filled its belly with another vole followed by the female also getting its dessert before it became too dark for me to get any more shots.

As I was leaving both owls flew toward my home across the fields a half mile away. After dark I went outside and listened to the two of them whispering sweet things to each other while they were perched in my large poplars.

These two owls may be the same ones that spent almost two weeks in the same area a year ago but I think the smaller one is a second relationship as I compared the pictures from the two seasons.

The Great Gray owls that visit the Rexburg area during the winter are probably the ones that nest and raise their young in the Moody Creek or the Island Park areas during the summer. I have never seen one in the Teton and Henry’s Fork River bottoms during the summer but each winter several show up there.

Several things about these beautiful creatures fascinates me. One has to be their ability to hear as they can pinpoint a rodent two feet under the snow and successfully harvest it 90 percent of the time. Their large facial disks, called “ruffs,” funnel sounds to their asymmetrical ears where the left ear is higher on the head than the right one.

As you watch a Great gray before it leaves its perch, you will notice that it will adjust the angle and level of its head, then it will adjust its feet just before it leaves its perch. The dive is called a “snow plunge” in which it will sometimes completely disappear coming up with the victim in its beak but quickly swallowed.

The other thing is that they may be the most courteous animal in the world that kills for a living. They do not steal food from others. They learn early in life that they have to take care of their own food bill. They are very quiet in everything they do – except when they are dating and then it is a quiet and respectful “whoooooo, whoooo, whoo.” They usually will not respond to calls of other Great grays because they do not fight over territory and they respect the nesting areas of others.

I hope these two spend a few more days in my neighborhood so I can learn a few more things about how they react to this world. I need a little more help understanding this mixed up, political toxic world; maybe they can help me, and my rodent population needs to be lessened.

This week huge flocks of Red-winged blackbirds showed up along with some pintail and mallard ducks in the Market Lake, Deer Parks Wildlife Management areas. Thousands of snow geese have reached American Falls, but I have not seen any Sandhill cranes. A few shorebirds like the Killdeers and Wilson’s snipes are very active on some streams that have muddy bottoms.

  • March 5 – Sandhill cranes usually show up and Great-horned owls start nesting.
  • March 10 – Tundra and Trumpeter swans migrate through the area and usually only stay a few days.
  • March 15 – Snow geese start arriving with some staying until late April. These can be seen in amazing numbers with flocks up to 50,000 some years.
  • March 20 – Long-billed curlews show up and Pintails, Mallards and Teal ducks show up in huge flocks.
  • March 22 – Tree swallows start showing up to stake out their nesting spots.
  • March 25 – Peregrine falcons return to Camas NWR.
  • March 30 – Duck numbers peak on ponds in the Osgood area, Mud Lake, Market Lake and Camas.