Many years ago, while in the infancy of my birding addiction, I was headed out to Skilak Loop Road to check lynx traps. We were capturing and fitting a few of these animals with radio-collars to track their movements and fates. As I got to the outskirts of Sterling, a very large bird flew out of the snowstorm and landed on a small spruce next to the highway. I recognized right away that it was not a Great Horned Owl, but was in fact the first Great Gray Owl I had ever seen.
As I said, it was early in my birding career and little did I know 10 years would pass before I saw my second Kenai Peninsula Great Gray Owl. Number 2 flew in front of me while on a snowmachine patrol on Mystery Creek Road.
Fast forward seven more years and I saw my third while moose hunting in the Swanson River Oilfield. I was slipping back into camp at dusk and I am still not sure whose eyes were bigger, as this big gray owl flew up by my tent. All of my experiences with these birds were brief, unexpected, and memorable. Seeing a bird like this leaves you with a sense of wonder and amazement at the size and power of these silent hunters. Yet they have such a calm and stoic nature to them that the best descriptor I can use is gentle. From my experiences, this is not a common species on the peninsula.
Great Gray Owls are semi-nomadic and will often range far from their normal breeding areas in search of food. They are often referred to as ghosts or phantoms. They just mysteriously appear and disappear with little warning. These owls are classified as an irruptive species. While these irruptions are about as predictable as our volcanic eruptions, they are rarely tracked by the Alaska Volcano Observatory. Bird irruptions are irregular occasions when there are large autumn and winter invasions of a species from its normal wintering areas into areas where they are seldom seen. Irruptions are most common with seed eating birds from the north like Crossbills or Pine Siskins. During winters when the northern spruce cone crop is a bust, these finches may move south down the Atlantic seaboard all the way to the Carolinas. Irruptions may also be associated with food sources other than seeds and cones. Great Gray Owl irruptions occur every four or five years in the Great Lakes and Atlantic states. These are likely triggered by the cyclic nature of vole populations which peak every four years.
The latest Great Gray Owl irruption happened in the winter of 2004-2005. It was by far the largest irruption ever reported with over 11,000 sightings of an estimated 5,000 birds in Minnesota. Irruptions can be caused by several factors, but almost always they center on food. It may be high rodent numbers in the area they move to, or a crash in the prey population in the area they came from.
It may even be as simple as a change in snow conditions in their normal range that forces them to move to better hunting areas. Snow may be too deep or maybe warmer conditions caused a crust layer that is impenetrable.
Regardless of the cause, the Kenai Peninsula seems to be experiencing a mini irruption of Great Gray Owls this winter. Having seen only three Great Grays over the past 25 years, I was shocked when two sightings were reported to the Refuge in the same week! Then over the next few weeks we have had at least nine different birds reported. The majority of the birds have been reported between Clam Gulch and Kasilof, but there are sightings in Homer, Kenai (Bridge Access Road) and Sterling (Adkins Road and Forrest Lane).
There are likely two or three times more birds out there that have not been reported. If you are looking for a good family activity, tell your kids you are off to find Errol from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” He is the clumsy one that is always flying into things. Take a drive to one of these areas and look for a huge owl perched on a pole or small tree next to an open field.
Great Gray Owls are one of the largest owls in the world and often look larger than our typical Great Horned Owls. While they are similar in size, there is little concern over competition for food. Great Horned Owls prefer snowshoe hares and spruce grouse, and the Great Gray with its 5-foot wingspan, dines mostly on voles and other small rodents. Because of their size, an adult consumes up to seven voles per day. They are also diurnal compared to the more nocturnal Great Horned Owls. These giants are routinely hunting from perches during daylight hours and can be quite the highlight for photographers. They are slow fliers and quite approachable, allowing even the amateur photographer to get a classic shot of them diving into a snow bank for a tasty morsel. They can attract a lot of attention when they show up in an unexpected place. Even back in the 1970s before birding popularity had soared, a Great Gray Owl at a farm in Massachusetts registered over 3,000 visitors during a two month period.
If Great Gray Owls continue to be sighted throughout the winter, we would love to track their occurrences around the Kenai Peninsula. Please report any information you have, with photos if possible, to Todd Eskelin, at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, 260-2817.
Todd Eskelin is a Biological Technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He specializes in birds and has conducted research on songbirds in many areas of the state. He may be reached at 907-262-7021. Previous Refuge Notebook columns can be viewed on the web at http://kenai.fws.gov.