Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Elusive Great Gray Owls wintering near Rexburg

Every winter the river bottoms along Henry’s Fork of the Snake River become a magnet for Great Gray Owls. As the harsh winters reduce access to prey in the high elevation forests to the north, many Great Gray Owls wander out into the Upper Snake River Valley and find that Henry’s Fork provides great shelter and food. Henry’s Fork flattens out and turns into a vast array of sloughs just as it gets to the north and east of Rexburg. This is probably the best place to look for Great Gray Owls in Idaho in the winter. Both Ellen and I actually grew up in Rexburg, and every time I see a post or photo of the Great Gray Owls hanging out near Rexburg I have to kick myself a little for not getting more interested in birds while I still lived there, since we have yet to see a Great Gray Owl since we started birding.

GGOW Map

eBird map of Great Gray Owl sightings near Rexburg.

I suspect the birder that has the best connection to these rare winter visitors is Bill Schiess. Bill (or Mr. Schiess as I knew him as a student in his Current Events and AP History classes) is a high school teacher, naturalist, and master fly fisherman. Based on the number of incredible encounters he has had with these fantastic owls, I think it would be also be safe to call him a Great Gray Owl whisperer. If you live in the area and read the Standard Journal, you may have already read some of Bill’s columns about some of the local birds. Check out Bill’s blog for incredible photos he has taken from his close encounters with these owls.

Luckily, both Ellen and I have family in Rexburg that we visit every month or two, so there are usually at least one or two trips during the right time of the year where we have a chance to try for a Great Gray Owl while we’re there. So far, we haven’t been successful, but I’m sure one of these times the stars will align. Last year, my younger brother actually saw 4 or 5 all together in an open field near Warm Slough after we’d tried to find them two different times.

During a trip this past January I really wanted to track down a Great Gray Owl that Bill Schiess had found in Beaver Dick Park. After getting to my in-law’s house and getting Ellen and Nora settled in to bed, I picked up my brother who’s always up for an outdoor adventure at any hour of the day or night and we headed out for a 2am owl chase.

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My brother helping me chase a Great Gray Owl near Beaver Dick Park, Madison County. January 18, 2014.

After hiking a couple of miles through the snow under a full moon and counting probably a dozen Great Horned Owls, we decided to call it a night. On our way out of town the next day, Ellen and I stopped by for another attempt during the daylight hours. Still no luck, but just like last year, we at least tracked down our Trumpeter Swans for the year instead.

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Nora all bundled up for a quick walk (well for her, a quick nap) at Beaver Dick Park, Madison County. January 19, 2014.

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Trumpeter Swans at Beaver Dick Park, Madison County. January 19, 2014.

On our way home, we stopped to feed Nora in Howe. Normally the area around Howe is a haven for wintering raptors. In some years you can count hundreds of raptors within just a few miles, literally dotting the top of every power line and sprinkler pipe. Not so much on this trip, though we did enjoy watching a Rough-legged Hawk perform a hovering maneuver while hunting over an agricultural field, a feat we usually see American Kestrels perform.

Rough-legged Hawk hover-hunting near Howe, Butte County. January 19, 2014.

Continuing our theme of looking for but not finding owls, we stopped by Camas Prairie Centennial Marsh in hopes of finding a Short-eared Owl wintering in the area. We’ve found one here before during the summer breeding season, but sometimes they are more nomadic in the winter, so it’s a tossup whether or not you might find one in the same area where they breed. We didn’t find one on this trip, but since Nora needed another feeding break anyway, we played Short-eared Owl calls for a while as the sun set, just in case we could draw one in to our quickly fading view.

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Watching for a Short-eared Owl at Camas Prairie Centennial Marsh, Camas County. January 19, 2014.

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