The Great Gray Owl usually lives deep in the northern forests of Canada. But due to scarce food, thousands of the big owls have drifted south. They’ve drifted into southern Ontario and Quebec, even crossing the border into Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Last month, a Great Gray was spotted in New York, the first one documented there in almost a decade. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein was there when it
The Great Gray Owl usually lives deep in the northern forests of Canada. But due to scarce food,
thousands of the big owls have drifted south. They’ve drifted into southern Ontario and Quebec,
even crossing the border into Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Last month, a Great Gray
was spotted in New York, the first one documented there in almost a decade. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein was there when it happened:
Ornithologist Gerry Smith had invited me to see some of the best raptor habitat in northern New
York. We took off in his cluttered Saturn wagon.
“Here we go!…” (sound of engine turning on)
Gerry wears a beat up canvas hat, green sweatshirt, and always has one hand on his binoculars.
He started birdwatching when he was 13 as a sort of therapy.
“My father passed away when I was 15, but he was terminally ill, and I needed an escape, you
know, obviously as a 13 year-old kid I didn’t know that, but I got hooked, and the rest, as they
say, is history.”
More than 40 years later, he’s never had a job not related to birds. And he’s in his element
cruising the back roads of Upstate New York.
These farm fields are near the St. Lawrence River. They’re ideal for hawks and owls. They’re
grassy with occasional tree stands. And they don’t get as much snow as other parts of the state.
So birds can snag the mice and voles they live on all winter long.
In no time, Gerry’s spotting raptors. There’s a hawk perched in a twisted elm…
“Yep, it’s a Red-tailed Hawk and I think it’s got prey because it’s bending down like it’s eating.”
A rough-legged hawk soars above us, black and white plumage glowing in the sun.
“The bird was just lofting along.”
A Short-eared Owl glides past a farmhouse.
“Look how that is flying. It’s flying like a big fruit bat. Cutting left across the hay bales, coming
toward the house, above the house now, and drifting left.”
Smith’s also seen a snowy owl this year. But still no sign of the Great Gray owl.
The Great Gray usually lives in the far northern forests of Canada. But this year it has flown
south to the upper Great Lakes region by the thousands. Conservation biologist Jim Duncan is a
Great Gray Owl expert with the province of Manitoba. He says the phenomenon happens
cyclically, when the Great Gray’s main food source – the meadow vole – becomes scarce.
“It’s a regular migration. It’s like a robin migrating in response to food availability, except in the
case of the Great Gray Owl, it’s a longer period of time. It’s three to five years.”
Gerry Smith’s still waiting for the Great Gray in New York. It’s been spotted just across the St.
Lawrence River in Canada.
“There’s a single Great Gray Owl on Amherst Island, but not one, as far as we know, has made it
into northern New York despite the fact that a whole lot of us have been looking.”
Now, I know you’re going to call that easy foreshadowing. But believe it or not, just an hour
later, Gerry pulls the car over, grabs his binoculars, and peers at something big perched on a tree.
“We have the first Great Gray Owl that’s made it across the border. I’ll be a son of a gun. That is
so…Now I’m very enthusiastic. Hey, I’m gonna set up my scope.”
While Gerry unpacks the telescope, a raven flies to a branch just above the owl and tries to scare
it away. Birders call it “mobbing.”
“Now don’t you mob that owl, you fiend. I think that’s what he’s thinking of doing. Watch this.”
The owl holds its ground, and Gerry gets it in the telescope’s sights.
“That is so cool. It’s not facing us, it’s back is to us, but take a look, that shape is very
It’s slate gray with some brown and white, round head, stocky body, as big or bigger than the
“This has been…oh, the owl just hooted. It’s a very low guttural hoot, something like a horned
owl, only deeper.”
Just then, the owl’s finally had enough. It takes flight and drifts slow and low to a stand of trees,
likely its roost. Gerry jots down the GPS coordinates and we get back in the car.
“Well, sir, we’ll finish the route and head back, but we have had undoubtedly the high point of
the day. That’s the high point of my winter.”
This Great Gray Owl migration is the biggest on record. Biologist Jim Duncan says it’s a chance
for all eager birders to help science.
“People have a real opportunity to contribute to our knowledge of the species, be they farmers,
housewives, commuters. They don’t have to be scientists.”
You do have to be respectful, though, if you want to report Great Gray sightings to wildlife
officials. Stay off private land, don’t make noise, and keep your distance. And enjoy a rare
opportunity to see a Great Gray visitor from the North.
For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.