Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Great Gray Owl Story

I'm digging into the archives tonight to tell you a story that's almost 2 years old. Some of you may remember the winter of 2005 when the Great Gray Owls invaded northern Minnesota. For me, it was an event I'll never forget....and it all started so innocently.

I was still working at Wild Birds Unlimited then and had been hearing a few stories about this owl irruption, but hadn't been paying much attention. Then one Saturday evening on the NBC Nightly News, I saw this story about the owls and featuring Sharon Stiteler. Oh My Gosh, I could barely function the rest of the evening! First of all there were these huge numbers of owls (practically in my backyard) that would never be seen again in my lifetime (according to the story) and secondly there was the Birdchick! I was amazed to actually see this young woman who was so interested in birds (freakishly so, according to her website). It was almost like getting permission to "come out of the closet" so to speak. If this cute, young woman could go on national TV and be so excited about birds, then I wasn't going to hide my feelings anymore either.....and the rest is history.

So anyway, I talked my spousal unit into a couple weekend trips up north and were disappointed to see only a few owls. I don't know how we got on the subject, but one day my sissy and I had a brainstorm and decided that the two of us should try an owl trip together. So we took a little time off work and went up on a Thursday afternoon so we could get an early start looking for owls on Friday. We stayed at a nice (and inexpensive) motel in Moose Lake and used that as our starting point. Since I had already been up there a couple times, I was familiar with the roads to travel.

Following our usual birding trip agenda, we got an early start after loading up on snacks and coffee and headed out. It was cold that morning--above zero, but not very far. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon when we saw our first Great Gray Owl. It was actually too dark yet to even take a picture, but there it was....a good sign for what would turn out to be an incredible day.

We continued driving slowly down the country roads and stopped whenever we would see an owl. (A nice schoolbus driver even stopped on his route to make sure we weren't having car trouble.)

Some in trees.

Some on power lines and poles.

Some on fenceposts right next to the road! (I think Sissy was about 6 feet away from this owl when she took this picture)

The amazing thing was that we could stop the car, get out, and take pictures and these owls didn't fly away! I tried hooting at them and Wow, did that ever get a reaction. If they weren't looking in our direction, as soon as they heard me hoot, they would swivel their head around so Sissy could snap a picture.

We started seeing so many owls we were having trouble keeping track, so I pulled out my handy-dandy knitting row counter and clicked it every time we saw another owl. I can't remember the exact number, but by the end of the day we had seen over 70 of these wonderful birds.

And there were bonus birds too:

A Northern Hawk Owl

Bald Eagle sitting at the top of an evergreen

We had a blast on this trip and I'm glad Sissy came along with me because she was the driver while I scanned the landscape for owls. And even though we got to see all those cool owls, I think my favorite picture from the trip is this one:
My Sissy up to her butt in snow in the road ditch! She was going to try and walk over for a better picture and we had no idea the snow was this deep--it was March for cryin' out loud! She handed me the camera to put back in the car for safekeeping and I couldn't resist snapping this picture before helping to pull her out.


Trixie said...

I think I know that look in the owls. We see it in the moose. It's the "you aren't going to make me move in this cold are you" look.

And your sister looked like she handled the post-holing well.

Thanks for sharing such a lovely story.

mon@rch said...

I do remember when all those Great Grays made it into your area! I never did get to see one and amazed by your 70 birds that you saw! WOW!! So glad you shared these pictures and stories with us!

barefoot gardener said...

You get such fabulous pics of the birds! I wish I had that talent.

Anonymous said...

I remember that trip the 2 of you took, you even made the Stewartville paper, even if is just a local paper you 2 made it. You brought back fabulous pics for all of us to look at. I know this was a memorable trip for the 2 of you, even if your up to your butt in snow. Thanks for refreshing my memory on the Great Gray Owl trip, they were beautiful.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

I wanted to go up there so bad Ruthie. I can't imagine seeing that many Great Grays. Wow. You are one luck lady to get to go, twice even.

Anonymous said...

There was Great Gray Owl spotted in Hastings on the 3rd. Not sure if it is still there. Great pictures! My husband and I went up a couple of times too. Once in a lifetime. Keep an eye on the M.O.U. hotline report that comes out weekly on Thursdays or Fridays.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Trixie,
We had heard that most of these owls had never been around humans before so they weren't alarmed by us at all--and fortunately we were way bigger than a vole so they could've cared less!

Hi Mon@rch,
It was truly awesome to be able to see these owls. They are such beautiful birds.

Hi BG,
My sister took all of the owl pictures, so I can't take any credit, but I'll be sure to share your comment with her!

Hi Mom,
Having all this snow again just reminded me of that trip. It was fun to get the pictures out once more and re-live the event for my blog.

Hi Lisa,
I think when I heard one of the local birders talking about it as his "once in a lifetime" bird event and "more owls than he'd ever seen in his 30 years of birding", it finally dawned on me that I'd better not miss it either!

Hi Cindy,
I get that MOU bird list in my e-mail, so I'll watch for that sighting information. Hastings isn't that far away from me....

Anonymous said...

I want your photo of the GGO on the fence post! Nice photo and I miss that owl irruption - good times!

Mike Hendrickson

Mary said...


My jaw hung open when I realized how close you were to these beautiful creatures! You are so lucky! I'm almost ashamed to admit I've never seen an owl outside of a raptor center. I'm glad you and your sissy have an adventurous spirit so you can share them with us!

If the Great Grays came through Charlotte, I'd take a week off from work :o)

Great photos.

Maud said...

I love owls,and your pictures are great!Thank you for showing them again.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Mike,
I sent you an e-mail with the photo as attachment.

Hi Mary,
Owls are a difficult bird because they're mostly active at night, so most of us don't get a chance to see them. I normally don't go any distance to see a rare or unusual bird because there's always the chance it won't be hanging around anymore, but there were so many of these owls all over the place, so with a little extra time and effort, I finally got to see them.

Hi Maud,
I'm glad you enjoyed the pictures.

Deb said...

I really miss that winter, when I could drive to work and see as many as fifteen great gray owls on the way. In fact, that's what got me started blogging. One day I came home to one sitting on my mailbox (Harry Potter fans take note!) Unfortunately, I did not have a digital camera at the time.

Marsha said...

How lucky were you to have seen these beautiful guys! The photos are really amazing.

Ruth said...

I haven't seen one single owl in the wild. What a great story and wonderful pictures!

Jennifer said...

Wow! How cool is that??? Nice pictures!

Jayne said...

What a trip!!!! So many wonderful owls. I have to admit, I've never seen one. :c( Love the eagle on the evergreen... so regal. And your sissy in the snow... priceless!!

Mary C said...

Ruthie - that is such an impressive number of birds. And such great pix and so close. Wow! Thanks for sharing the story and pix with us.

RuthieJ said...

Hi Deb,
That was a great winter! Seeing all those owls while commuting to work must have made you late to work more than once? (I know I would have been.) That's extra special that you got to see one perched on your mailbox!

Hi Marsha,
Thank you. My sister is a pretty good photographer.

Hi Ruth,
Up until 2005, I had seen very few owls in the wild too. Since then I think I've only seen 4 wild owls.

Hi Jenn,
It was definitely something I'll never forget!

Hi Jayne,
On the road where we took the picture of the eagle was a car-killed deer and I think that's what the eagle had its eye on. We kept waiting for it to fly down from the tree, but it never did, so we had to settle for a tree-top photo.

Hi Mary,
We found out during that winter that many of those owls were close to starvation and they were concentrating so much on trying to find food that they didn't much care about anything else. It was hard not to think about the sad circumstances that created such a fantastic birding event.

Anonymous said...

Seeing the owl pictures again, reminds soon they will be calling at nite looking for a mate. I love to be out at nite to hear their hooting and then wait for an answer, it just sends shivers up my spine and not from the cold to listen for them. The coyotes are just starting to "yodel" again. Now that it is very cold the sound travels so well and there isn't much wind, and little traffic noise helps.

Meggie said...

Wow, Ruthie! What a great trip for you and your sissy. The owls are magnificent. I've only seen a few owls because they are usually active at night. Your photos are incredible. I'm glad it was such a good trip...thanks for sharing.

Larry said...

Wow! You've been holding that ace in your sleeve for a while now.I can't imagine how exciting that must have been. Any time I see an owl I'm psyched because I so rarely do. Awesome photos!