Elusive Silent Hunters of the Night and Twilight.
Great Horned Owls and Great Gray Owls occasionally share the same terrain in the Jackson Hole valley. They are increasingly popular subjects in the Park. If seen close to the road, an “owl jam” can rival any “bear jam”.
At least from my experience, Great Gray Owls are much more tolerant of humans than Great Horned Owls. They will occasionally land within feet of a stationary photographer. A couple of years ago, a Great Gray landed on the foot of a photographer while he was resting on the ground! I’ve experienced them flying within inches of my head on their way to their next hunting location.
Great Horned Owl always seem to be more skittish. The one in the photo above let me work around the trees to find an open shot. It flew from tree to tree, hunting, but not in earnest. By the time I left, it was sleeping in a tree with no apparent concern for my presence or my eventual exit.
Great Gray Owl “C3″ might be the most photographed owl in Grand Teton National Park. During July, this owl and it’s mate hunt along the Moose-Wilson Road with a fair degree or regularity. I saw it last year, too. I’ve heard people suggest this is the male, seen more often hunting while the female is still with the chicks on or near the nest. C3 also has an antenna wire protruding from its back. I don’t believe its mate has either a tag or tracking device.
Most Great Gray Owls are night hunters — or at least late evening and early morning hunters. By late June and early July, the chicks require more food, forcing the pair to hunt more in the daylight hours. C3 and its mate sometimes hunt below the big overlook along the Moose-Wilson Road, and along the road for roughly a mile. If you look closely, you can see the antenna wire just above the back in the “v” of the wings.
When actively hunting, Great Gray Owls move from perch to perch if they don’t locate a vole or mouse near their current perch.
Or…they can sit patiently on the same perch for half an hour!
I have much less experience with Great Horned Owls. While they might hunt during daylight hours, I seldom see one fly to a prey animal. I’ve seen them fly to the ground at dusk on several occasions, but it would be difficult to have photographed.
Great Horned Owls, like the Great Gray Owls blend in will with their surroundings. Unless they are silhouetted against the sky, you can drive by one and never see it. You can also walk by one in the forest and not see it until it flies off from over your head.
Great Grays can have wingspans up to roughly 60″ while Great Horned Owls can span up to about 55″.
The Great Horned Owls I’ve found in GTNP have always been deeper in the forest or trees than the hunting Great Gray Owls I’ve seen.
Great Gray Owls hunt from relatively low perches, sometimes only a few feet off the ground, and other times not much more than around 12 feet off the ground. The few times I’ve actually seen a Great Horned Owl fly to the ground has been from much higher perches…like 25′ or so.
Once locked in on a vole or mouse, a Great Gray flies directly to its prey.
Concentration is paramount, but this trait can be deadly. GGOs lack the skills to evaluate their flight path prior to dropping to their prey. If their path takes them across a roadway, they are in jeopardy of being hit by a passing vehicle.
I don’t have any sort of documentation to support it, but it seems C3 catches a mouse or vole on about one out of 7 attempts…better on some days.
Sometimes, an owl will devour a small rodent while still on the ground. Other times, they fly to a nearby perch to polish it off.
As the chicks grow, the adults catch a small rodent and fly back to the nesting area.
As the young owls begin leaving the nest, the parents both hunt.
Young Great Gray Owls are not great flyers initially. They hop from tree to tree, or soar to the ground if they miss a landing perch. While on the ground, they are vulnerable to predators, but are usually quick to find a diagonal trunk to reduce the danger. As fledglings see one of its parents returning with food, each chick vies for the attention of the adult.
Each chick gets their fair share. The adults pass off the food to the hungry baby.
Once fed, the adult flies off to find food for the next chick.
This fledgling Great Gray Owl was photographed in mid-July, one of three. It was one of C3’s chicks. I spent one day with the fledglings after they had moved from their nesting area. By the next day, the adults had moved them far from the area I found them.
This photos clearly shows the pointed tips on the tail feathers. Of the three fledglings, this one was most developed.
By early October, the young Great Gray Owls are capable of hunting on their own. The tail feathers on an adult are rounded, while the tips of the tail feathers on the new hunters are pointed as seen in the photo above.
There is an amazing transformation between the early fledgling days of July and the juvenile hunters of October. Their wing feathers are longer and the feathers around their heads are fully developed. By October, they appear to be close to the size of their nearby adults. Other than the pointed tail feathers, it would be difficult for me to tell them from adults.
I watched this young owl catch at least a couple of mice before flying deep into the groves of Spruce and Aspen trees.
Finding the Great Owls
The odds are very high that the first person to see an owl saw it because it was flying. Otherwise, they can be difficult to spot. Once the first person gets out and begins taking photos, the owl jam begins and dozens or many people get to view it. In that case, its all about being in the right place at the right time!
There are other times an owl can stick out like a sore thumb! If the light is hitting their feathers, they can almost glow against a dark background. This one was hunting in a meadow.
It would be easy to drive right by this owl.
When not hunting, both species can tuck into dark and shady cover.
The dilemma facing tourists and photographers hoping to find owls begins with a geographic reality. These raptors use the river bottoms for their hunting and nesting. In Jackson Hole, the Snake River meanders roughly 35 miles through the Jackson Hole valley. The river bottom can be a half mile to a mile wide. Additional terrain includes the Gros Ventre, Buffalo Fork, Spread Creek, Ditch Creek Pacific Creek, Pilgrim Creek, and the entire Jackson Lake shoreline. The area is huge, and much of it is inaccessible to most people.
Besides the huge area of potential terrain, they are relatively small difficult to see. By comparison, a dark 1000 pound bull moose is usually easy to spot against the sagebrush. Most people never see past about 50 feet into the forest as they drive by an area. Short of driving up on an “owl jam”, the odds are severely stacked against most people seeing either species.
Even with the odds seemingly stacked against us, it helps to at least have a clue where people traditionally see them. You’ll need a keen eye and a whole lot of luck!
- Moose-Wilson Road: Both species from the Moose visitor’s center to the south entrance near Teton Village.
- Death Canyon Road to Whitegrass Ranch: Both species.
- Schwabacher Landing: This is a good access point to the river bottom. Both species have been spotted there.
- Gros Ventre River Bottom: This is a very good zone to look for Great Horned Owls.
- Ditch Creek River Bottom: Also good for Great Horned Owls.
- Fall Creek Road (South of Wilson): Both species are sighted there on a regular basis.
- Pilgrim Creek Road: Both species possible.
- Spring Creek Road: Both Species. From Highway 26 to the Golf and Tennis Club.
- Mormon Row: I’ve seen a Great Horned owl sitting on the roof of the TA Moulton Barn on several occasions, and several years ago, a pair nested in the tree next to one of the old homesteads. They are night hunters, feeding on the numerous Uinta Ground Squirrels and Chipmonks found near the barns.
Great Horned owls nest much earlier than the Great Grays. There will likely be snow still on the ground. Some take over old Red-tailed Hawks nests while others create a nest in a trunk or cavity. A few years ago, a pair nested in a heart shaped cavity in the Gros Ventre campground, but they haven’t returned. Another nest was used along the Moose-Wilson road, but hasn’t been used in several years either. Great Horned Owls “hoot” during the night and twilight hours. If you are seriously interested in finding the right areas, go out after dark or before sunrise and listen for them. Campers in the Gros Ventre Campground are always reporting hearing them overnight.
Raptor researchers are very tight lipped about the birds they study. They never divulge the locations of nests. The Park Service will close a huge chunk of land around a nest, and unlike most official closures, they don’t post the location of the area on their closures and alerts pages. I heard a report suggesting the researchers knew about 23 successful nesting pairs in the JH region. By late fall, there could be a hundred Great Gray Owls hunting in the area. All of the fledglings I saw this year had already been banded by researchers.
Great Gray Owls hunt for a few days in one area, then move to another area for a few days. If you hear of one in an area, that’s you queue to check it out. They may or may not be there when you go there, but it definitely gives you a better chance.
All of the images on this page were taken in 2015. I have a lot more of course. You might think I find owls at my whim, but that would be entirely incorrect. Most of the Great Gray Owls were taken while the adults were hunting to feed their fledgling chicks. Once they moved the chicks out of the area, the adults have been scarce. I found the Great Horned owls on this page while hiking the river bottom looking for Great Gray owls. I stumbled upon one willing to let me take photos. I’ve found a couple of them on the Gros Ventre while hiking around looking for Moose. The last Great Gray owl I photographed in 2014 was in August. The next time I photographed one in the JH valley was in May of 2015. Similarly, I photographed a lot of owls in July, but never one in August and September, before seeing a few in October.
When I find an owl, I stay with it and return to it regularly until it moves on. The time with them is almost always fleeting.
Other Owl Species
If finding owls the size of a fully grown chicken is difficult, imagine trying find the ones about the size of a snowball! Pygmy Owls and Saw Whet Owls are occasionally spotted in the Jackson Hole valley. I photographed a Pygmy Owl in Karns Meadow (in town) a couple of years ago. I haven’t seen one since. I’ve seen a few photos of Saw Whet Owls from the area, but the only one I’ve ever seen was in Idaho. A few years ago, I heard a report of a pair of Barn Owls in the north barn of Mormon Row. I’ve looked for them, but have never seen them. They are more common in Idaho and Utah. A few years ago, an artist showed me photos of Burrowing Owls she took on the National Elk Refuge. Needless to say, I went out numerous times looking for them. I’ve heard of Long Eared Owls in the Yellowstone ecosystem, but I don’t recall hearing of one in the Tetons.
For the most part, there are two types of Owl shots: Perched and flying (or in motion). When perched, Owls are amazingly still. Shutter speeds can be as slow as a half second in low light. With a good tripod and reasonable skills, low light shots can be amazing. Flight shots require a bit more skill and faster shutter speeds. Some people prefer to shoot hand-held and some of them get fantastic shots. I prefer to use a tripod, even at the expense of losing an occasional shot. A Great Gray can sit perched on a branch or log for 30 minutes, or for only a few minutes. They often perk up and focus on a spot just before they fly, but even then it can take minutes of concentration on their part — and there are lots of “false alarms”. With a tripod, I know I can effortlessly keep the equipment trained on the subject for long periods of time and be ready when the owl makes its move. Holding a heavy lens up to my eye for a long period is not my idea of having fun!
Shutter speeds for flight shots should probably range in the 1/1000th second to 1/1250th second to stop action. Depth of field and ISO can vary based on available light. Lately, I have been shooting in Auto ISO mode, locking down my shutter speed and aperture and living with the higher ISO results on my D4 and D810. If the goal is flight shots, I usually take the D4 which is capable of roughly 10 frame per second. The D810 has a slower frame rate, but make beautiful shots of the perched owls. I typically use either 9 points or Group Focus (on the D810) if I anticipate flight. I believe all of these images were captured with a Tamron 150-600mm lens.
I often switch to single point focus when perched. Some people like “Back Button Focus” for this, but I’ve never fully adopted the technique.
This one probably benefited from a fast shutter speed and panning.
Overcast days are good for Owls, but early morning light can create some dramatic effects.
When on the ground, you know they are going to fly soon. Be ready!
The rabbit style legs are usually only visible like this right after take-off.
Depth of field on a telephoto lens is not very large if the owl is fairly close. Sometimes the autofocus grabs the wings, causing the face to be out of focus. This time, it picked up the face and let the two wings blur. The wings from tip to tip on a full grown adult can be close to five feet!
Win some, lose some! As an owl passes through trees and branches, the autofocus will occasionally lock onto something other than the owl. Other times, it does a great job! Take-offs are usually easier than landings.
Many visitors to GTNP especially hope to see bears and moose. Great Gray and Great Horned Owls seem to be very high on their lists, too. Possibly, information on this page will help you find one on your visit to the area. Remember, the odds are stacked against you, but if you are lucky and watchful, you might hit the jackpot!
Additional Resources: These two pages at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology can supply you with technical information about the two species which might be helpful.
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