Sponsored by Mountain View Hospital
scattered clouds
humidity: 63%
wind: 10mph SW
H 21 • L 15

The Great gray owls were active as they preyed on voles near Rexburg and I caught it on camera

Living the Wild Life

Share This
Photos: Bill Schiess |

A Great gray owl perched silently on the edge of a clearing in the Teton River bottoms as I watched it closely to see if it had pinpointed rodent movement beneath the snow. Twice I noticed it locked onto a space about 20 feet in front of me. I heard nothing, but from 90 feet away, using its asymmetrical hearing, the owl cocked its head slightly to the left and lifted off in a slow glide. Then almost stopping in midair, it plunged into a foot of snow with its feet near its head.


It wiggled itself out of the snow with a vole grasped in its beak. It flew into an aspen thicket near its favorite perch to consume its third rodent of the morning.

On this attack, the bird had chosen a vole too close for my Nikon D7500 camera with a Sigma DG 150 – 500 mm lens to capture. Those pictures would come about 30 minutes later when the owl’s partner chose a vole about 35 feet away to harvest. The two birds would harvest six voles in seven attempts during the two hours that I watched and recorded them.

This was my fourth visit in two weeks to observe this pair of Great grays as they had recently moved from the area mountains to the rodent-rich river bottoms near Rexburg. They were not the only two to show up as I, and others have seen at least seven Great grays this fall.

“I just got a picture of a Great gray while I was in my tree-stand hunting,” said one email from a bow hunter. “It actually flew into my stand and landed on my foot! Its eyes and feet are huge!”

“I just saw a Great Gray owl down below my place,” another person called to tell me as he was hiking the Teton River bottoms. “I’ll look for its partner that should be around here somewhere.”

I was able to locate both pairs of owls and other owls have shown up in traditional places that they normally winter in.

With their asymmetrical hearing created by the left ear opening being higher on its head than the right ear opening, Great Gray owls have a perfect directional hearing to pinpoint prey under snow. They can hear the slightest movement under 18 to 24 inches below the snow as their facial disks funnel the sounds to their ears. Because of their ear positions, each ear hears the sounds at different times and the owls adjusts their head and facial disks until both ears hear the sound at the same time, pinpointing the victim. They can detect the hearing difference up to 0.00003 per second – that is 30-millionths of a second!

With this hearing ability, if the prey moves, the owl can make corrections while in the attack flight. About 10 feet from the prey, the owl will bring its feet forward, spread its talons into an oval pattern and just before striking will position its feet in front of its face, close its eyes and snatch it with its beak. After the capture, it will transfer the prey to its bill before flying onto a perch to consume the meal.

In the winter, Great grays need to eat up to seven vole-sized rodents each day to survive. They are most active early in the morning and late in the evening but will often hunt during overcast days and in falling snow. Their soft feathers allow them to fly silently when attacking prey.

Due to the popularity of owls, we are encouraged not to pinpoint their locations to protect them. After I locate owls, I like to study them from a distance to learn of their individual habits as they go about their business. I try to position myself near one of their favorite spots and let them work toward me; meaning I sometimes have a long cold wait – sometimes up to two or three hours.

I understand there are some of you interested in the equipment and settings that I use for taking pictures of birds in flight. I am not a great photographer and do not have the best equipment, but love to study individual animals and birds for photos that will create a story.

When I leave home with my camera, I make sure I have a fully charged battery. I make sure the camera is in “A” (aperture) mode; set the camera at f-11 and at ISO 1600. Then I can adjust as the light and distance forces me to change. While in the outdoors I rarely pack a tripod because it is difficult to take moving pictures with it, but I will use trees and bushes to steady the camera for still shots.

I hope this helps. If you have individual questions, email and they will forward it on to me. Good Luck and get out in the great outdoors. Live the wild life!!