Great Horned Owls of Jackson Hole

Silent Hunters of the Night.

Great Horned Owl

Jackson Hole is home to numerous species of owls, including Great Gray Owls, Great Horned Owls, Pygmy Owls and Saw-whet Owls. I’ve also heard reports of Burrowing Owls, Long-eared Owls, Short-eared Owls, Barn Owls, and Flammulated Owls. Great Gray and Great Horned Owls are the largest, and at least from my experience, are the most plentiful. “Plentiful” might be an overly generous term to define their numbers, of course.

Great Horned Owl

Great Gray Owls always seem to steal all of the limelight when they are around, but I’m happy to photograph any owl! My National Audubon Society Field Guide says Great Horned Owls are distributed below the tree line throughout all of North America, while Great Grays are more limited to Alaska and Canada. A few pockets of them can be found in Northern Wyoming, California and Minnesota. This is one of my favorite photos of a Great Horned Owl. It was taken in some of the cottonwood and spruce groves along the Gros Ventre River. I had walked by this old stump several times while searching for Moose and remember thinking each time that I’d love to see an Owl sitting on it. A day or two later, early in the morning, I walked around a spruce three and saw it sitting there! I managed to get a few shots before it flew deep into the woods. I’ve “pre-visualized” hundreds of other lichen covered stumps and trees—and am still waiting for those visions to be fulfilled!

Long-eared Owl

The Audubon guide also suggests that Long-eared Owls can be found in our area, but I have personally never seen one. They live in very tight, dense thickets and are difficult to see. They will often let you walk right under them before flying off, creating a very frustrating day in the forests. Long-eared Owls resemble Great Gray Owls, as seen in this photo taken in Eastern Idaho.

Cottonwoods

It’s possible that a lot of people have walked or driven by a Great Horned Owl and never seen it. Same for Great Grays! They can camouflage into their environment all too well.

Nesting Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owls prefer nesting in a large natural cavity, or will take over a Raven or Hawk nest. GHOs start nesting long before Great Gray Owls. They are never easy to see, and initially, only the top of the female’s head might be visible. Later, the chicks begin showing.

Baby Great Horned Owls

This heart shaped nest was in the Gros Ventre Campground in 2010. I went back over and over in the following years, but it was never used again.

Heart Nest

Sadly, the tree was cut down by campground crews, as seen in this October 2018 photo.

Great Horned Owl Chicks

Great Horned Owl chicks are quite vulnerable when they first leave the nest. They can climb a tree to safety, but it takes a while for them to actually fly from tree to tree.

Baby Great Horned Owl

This chick fledged from a nest along the Moose-Wilson Road.

Great Horned Owl

Most of the Great Horned Owls I’ve seen are relatively skittish and tend to spend their day tucked in dense branches. They spend the daylight hours sleeping, and on bright days, seldom fully open their eyes.

Great Horned Owl Pair

These two Owls were spotted side by side a couple of times in November. Biologists at the Teton Raptor Center suggest they were probably nest mates that haven’t fully split up. Females are usually larger than males. The “ears” on Great Horned and Long Eared Owls are actually just tufts of feathers, and not actually ears.

Take Off

Over the years, I haven’t been fortunate to see that many Great Horned Owls fly, and it seems that when they do, they fly away from me. This owl prepared for flight from the top of a spruce tree.

Take Off

I have a lot more Great Gray Owl flight shots, but few Great Horned Owls in flight shots.

GHO in Flight

Evening Great Horned Owl

GHO with Mouse

Maybe it is common for other people in other parts of the country, but I’ve never actually seen a Great Horned Owl make a kill in the daytime. Great Horned Owls on All About Birds are described as “nocturnal hunters”. Needless to say, I was blessed to witness a hunting Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl with Prize

I managed to get a few shots of the Owl with it’s prize before it flew to another row of cottonwoods. By the time I found it again, the mouse was history!

Wing Stretch

2018 has been a good year for me for Great Horned Owls. Great Gray Owls have been extremely scarce. Reliable sources tell me the biologists know of only one Great Gray Owl in the valley right now. Two of my Eastern Idaho photographer/sources tell me that Owls have been been harder to find this year there, too, and they have no reports of Great Gray Owls. Another source suggested people in Pinedale, WY have reported seeing higher than normal numbers of Great Gray Owls.

Great Horned Owl

After I get over the initial “photograph any Owl” syndrome, I eventually start watching for unique poses, stretching, or odd behavior. At some point, the photos that jump off the page are the ones with good light or with good action. I remember waiting about 45 minutes for the light to finally shift enough to light this bird.

Great Gray Owl

Watch for Great Horned Owls in cottonwood groves and conifer forests. Occasionally, you’ll spot one out on a branch as seen in this photo, but more often, they are tucked tight against a tree trunk.

Great Horned Owl

Remember, if you don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there! I walked right by this Owl originally, then spotted it on my way back to the truck. Look for them at around 12 to 25 feet from the ground.

Here are a few places I’ve seen Great Horned Owls over the past year or two.

  • Gros Ventre River bottom (usually while hiking around looking for Moose)
  • Near Snake River Overlook
  • Schwabacher Landing
  • Ditch Creek
  • South Park Loop
  • South Park Feed Grounds
  • The West Bank
  • Fall Creek Road (South of Wilson)
  • Fish Creek Road (North of Wilson)
  • Almost anywhere along the Snake River
  • Canyon area of Yellowstone

In reality, your two best chances of seeing an owl is when you catch the movement of a flying owl, or if you see someone else taking a photo of one they saw probably saw flying. As I mentioned earlier, owls are often perched in trees or stumps at about 12-25 feet off the ground. If you happen to be “scanning” for ground dwelling animals like foxes, badgers, ermine, weasels, or even moose, it is easy to miss an owl above you. This has happened to me on many occasions.

Photography Notes

Over the span of years of photos on this page, I’ve used a Nikon D300, D4, D800, D810, D850 and D5 body. Initially, my longest lens was a Nikon 200-400 VR lens, then a Tamron 150-600 V1 and later a V2 lens. Most of the 2018 photos were taken with the D5 and Tamron G2 lens. Unlike Great Gray Owls that often hunt during the daytime hours, Great Horned Owls seldom hunt OR fly in the day. For that reason, I am often using much slower shutter speeds—sometimes as low at 1/100th of a second at 600mm. Unless the wind is blowing the tree around, or the Owl’s ear tufts are blowing, slow shutter speeds are usually fine if on a tripod. I prefer to stay 1/320th second or faster for the perched shots. Typically, a GHO will sit relatively still in the same tree for hours, giving me plenty of time to experiment with all of the combinations. Nikon cameras offer a great option of setting AUTO ISO and will “honor” EV adjustments. It takes only a few seconds to roll the shutter speed dial from 1/320th second to 1/1250th second, and the AUTO ISO will automatically adjust for the scene if in Manual Mode. Note: Only a couple of the upper end Canon bodies work the same in Manual/AutoISO.


Best of the Tetons Photo Tours

I offer year round photo tours in Grand Teton National Park and winter tours in the National Elk Refuge. A winter trip offers opportunities you won’t find in the other three seasons! Book now! Click the image for additional information.

Client Comments: “As a published and passionate photographer, I recognized Michael Jackson’s extraordinary skills as a photographer. Today I learned more about composition and creative technical ideas than I ever could have imagined.” G.S., Jackson Hole

Great Horned OwlPlease take a minute and register to sign up to follow this site. I’d love to have another couple hundred new subscribers from the group visiting the site. MJ

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Great Horned Owls of Jackson Hole

Silent Hunters of the Night.

Great Horned Owl

Jackson Hole is home to numerous species of owls, including Great Gray Owls, Great Horned Owls, Pygmy Owls and Saw-whet Owls. I’ve also heard reports of Burrowing Owls, Long-eared Owls, Short-eared Owls, Barn Owls, and Flammulated Owls. Great Gray and Great Horned Owls are the largest, and at least from my experience, are the most plentiful. “Plentiful” might be an overly generous term to define their numbers, of course.

Great Horned Owl

Great Gray Owls always seem to steal all of the limelight when they are around, but I’m happy to photograph any owl! My National Audubon Society Field Guide says Great Horned Owls are distributed below the tree line throughout all of North America, while Great Grays are more limited to Alaska and Canada. A few pockets of them can be found in Northern Wyoming, California and Minnesota. This is one of my favorite photos of a Great Horned Owl. It was taken in some of the cottonwood and spruce groves along the Gros Ventre River. I had walked by this old stump several times while searching for Moose and remember thinking each time that I’d love to see an Owl sitting on it. A day or two later, early in the morning, I walked around a spruce three and saw it sitting there! I managed to get a few shots before it flew deep into the woods. I’ve “pre-visualized” hundreds of other lichen covered stumps and trees—and am still waiting for those visions to be fulfilled!

Long-eared Owl

The Audubon guide also suggests that Long-eared Owls can be found in our area, but I have personally never seen one. They live in very tight, dense thickets and are difficult to see. They will often let you walk right under them before flying off, creating a very frustrating day in the forests. Long-eared Owls resemble Great Gray Owls, as seen in this photo taken in Eastern Idaho.

Cottonwoods

It’s possible that a lot of people have walked or driven by a Great Horned Owl and never seen it. Same for Great Grays! They can camouflage into their environment all too well.

Nesting Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owls prefer nesting in a large natural cavity, or will take over a Raven or Hawk nest. GHOs start nesting long before Great Gray Owls. They are never easy to see, and initially, only the top of the female’s head might be visible. Later, the chicks begin showing.

Baby Great Horned Owls

This heart shaped nest was in the Gros Ventre Campground in 2010. I went back over and over in the following years, but it was never used again.

Heart Nest

Sadly, the tree was cut down by campground crews, as seen in this October 2018 photo.

Great Horned Owl Chicks

Great Horned Owl chicks are quite vulnerable when they first leave the nest. They can climb a tree to safety, but it takes a while for them to actually fly from tree to tree.

Baby Great Horned Owl

This chick fledged from a nest along the Moose-Wilson Road.

Great Horned Owl

Most of the Great Horned Owls I’ve seen are relatively skittish and tend to spend their day tucked in dense branches. They spend the daylight hours sleeping, and on bright days, seldom fully open their eyes.

Great Horned Owl Pair

These two Owls were spotted side by side a couple of times in November. Biologists at the Teton Raptor Center suggest they were probably nest mates that haven’t fully split up. Females are usually larger than males. The “ears” on Great Horned and Long Eared Owls are actually just tufts of feathers, and not actually ears.

Take Off

Over the years, I haven’t been fortunate to see that many Great Horned Owls fly, and it seems that when they do, they fly away from me. This owl prepared for flight from the top of a spruce tree.

Take Off

I have a lot more Great Gray Owl flight shots, but few Great Horned Owls in flight shots.

GHO in Flight

Evening Great Horned Owl

GHO with Mouse

Maybe it is common for other people in other parts of the country, but I’ve never actually seen a Great Horned Owl make a kill in the daytime. Great Horned Owls on All About Birds are described as “nocturnal hunters”. Needless to say, I was blessed to witness a hunting Great Horned Owl.

Great Horned Owl with Prize

I managed to get a few shots of the Owl with it’s prize before it flew to another row of cottonwoods. By the time I found it again, the mouse was history!

Wing Stretch

2018 has been a good year for me for Great Horned Owls. Great Gray Owls have been extremely scarce. Reliable sources tell me the biologists know of only one Great Gray Owl in the valley right now. Two of my Eastern Idaho photographer/sources tell me that Owls have been been harder to find this year there, too, and they have no reports of Great Gray Owls. Another source suggested people in Pinedale, WY have reported seeing higher than normal numbers of Great Gray Owls.

Great Horned Owl

After I get over the initial “photograph any Owl” syndrome, I eventually start watching for unique poses, stretching, or odd behavior. At some point, the photos that jump off the page are the ones with good light or with good action. I remember waiting about 45 minutes for the light to finally shift enough to light this bird.

Great Gray Owl

Watch for Great Horned Owls in cottonwood groves and conifer forests. Occasionally, you’ll spot one out on a branch as seen in this photo, but more often, they are tucked tight against a tree trunk.

Great Horned Owl

Remember, if you don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there! I walked right by this Owl originally, then spotted it on my way back to the truck. Look for them at around 12 to 25 feet from the ground.

Here are a few places I’ve seen Great Horned Owls over the past year or two.

  • Gros Ventre River bottom (usually while hiking around looking for Moose)
  • Near Snake River Overlook
  • Schwabacher Landing
  • Ditch Creek
  • South Park Loop
  • South Park Feed Grounds
  • The West Bank
  • Fall Creek Road (South of Wilson)
  • Fish Creek Road (North of Wilson)
  • Almost anywhere along the Snake River
  • Canyon area of Yellowstone

In reality, your two best chances of seeing an owl is when you catch the movement of a flying owl, or if you see someone else taking a photo of one they saw probably saw flying. As I mentioned earlier, owls are often perched in trees or stumps at about 12-25 feet off the ground. If you happen to be “scanning” for ground dwelling animals like foxes, badgers, ermine, weasels, or even moose, it is easy to miss an owl above you. This has happened to me on many occasions.

Photography Notes

Over the span of years of photos on this page, I’ve used a Nikon D300, D4, D800, D810, D850 and D5 body. Initially, my longest lens was a Nikon 200-400 VR lens, then a Tamron 150-600 V1 and later a V2 lens. Most of the 2018 photos were taken with the D5 and Tamron G2 lens. Unlike Great Gray Owls that often hunt during the daytime hours, Great Horned Owls seldom hunt OR fly in the day. For that reason, I am often using much slower shutter speeds—sometimes as low at 1/100th of a second at 600mm. Unless the wind is blowing the tree around, or the Owl’s ear tufts are blowing, slow shutter speeds are usually fine if on a tripod. I prefer to stay 1/320th second or faster for the perched shots. Typically, a GHO will sit relatively still in the same tree for hours, giving me plenty of time to experiment with all of the combinations. Nikon cameras offer a great option of setting AUTO ISO and will “honor” EV adjustments. It takes only a few seconds to roll the shutter speed dial from 1/320th second to 1/1250th second, and the AUTO ISO will automatically adjust for the scene if in Manual Mode. Note: Only a couple of the upper end Canon bodies work the same in Manual/AutoISO.


Best of the Tetons Photo Tours

I offer year round photo tours in Grand Teton National Park and winter tours in the National Elk Refuge. A winter trip offers opportunities you won’t find in the other three seasons! Book now! Click the image for additional information.

Client Comments: “As a published and passionate photographer, I recognized Michael Jackson’s extraordinary skills as a photographer. Today I learned more about composition and creative technical ideas than I ever could have imagined.” G.S., Jackson Hole

Great Horned OwlPlease take a minute and register to sign up to follow this site. I’d love to have another couple hundred new subscribers from the group visiting the site. MJ

Subscribe to Best of the Tetons!

Receive email notifications of new posts.

If you like what you see here, please SHARE the page!

17.2 Miles to Go 3.3 Miles in Grand Teton National Park!

Time to keep 2.5 miles of Antelope Flats Road open year-around.

When Darla and I moved to Jackson Hole 32 years ago, the old saying was: “Between Labor Day and Memorial Day, you could shoot a canon down Broadway or Cache and not hit anyone or anything.” Turn the calendar to 2018 and you’ll immediately notice that things have changed. Jackson Hole is not as “remote” as it might have been decades ago. Airports, hotels, and winter activities are catering to ever increasing winter crowds. Tourists are more demanding, more worldly, and more mobile with their 4-wheel drive SUVs and trucks. I’ve personally witnessed this change!

A 2.5 mile section of Antelope Flats Road has been closed during the winter months since we moved here. I suspect it has been closed for decades before our arrival—probably dating back to 1943 when the eastern portion was established as the Jackson Hole National Monument then later included in Grand Teton National Park.

The original decision to close the section made perfect sense, decades ago, when there was no one around in the winter. The 2.5 mile section of road is prone to drift in with snow quickly after a storm.

Antelope Flats Road

Traditionally, Antelope Flats Road has been kept open until the end of the Elk Reduction Program, otherwise known as the Elk Hunt in Grand Teton National Park. That date varies some from year to year, but is usually sometime around December 9th or 10th. Without snow plow maintenance, the Park Service locks the gates at both ends once the road becomes unsafe or impassable. Kudos to the Park Service this year for leaving the road open so long! As of December 26th, there was a fair amount of snow on the road, but it was still plenty drivable as seen in the photo above. (December 26th, 2018) As of December 27th, the gates are locked at each end for the winter season.

GTNP South Map

This map shows the winter road closure in red. The green section is plowed from the highway to a snow plow turnaround .8 miles to the east. The distance from Mail Box Corner to the highway is only 3.3 miles, but to get either end of Antelope Flats Road during the winter months requires backtracking 17.2 miles, as shown in yellow on the map.

VansYou might notice two large touring vans in this crop from the previous photo. I don’t have records to indicate how many Wildlife Tours and Photography Tours operate in Grand Teton National Park during the winter months, but 27 companies are listed for winter tours in the National Elk Refuge, plus another half dozen that opted not to renew their permit this year. There are likely at least 30 companies offering winter tours in GTNP. Several of the larger companies like Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, Teton Science School, EcoTour Adventures, and Brushbuck Wildlife Tours have multiple touring vans. Needless to say, these companies wouldn’t be in business if there were no winter visitors to support them!

During the winter months, most of the prime wildlife viewing opportunities are found in the southern portion of the park and on the National Elk Refuge. Most tours begin in town, then head north to the new roundabout at Gros Ventre Junction and northeast towards Kelly. Moose, deer, elk, eagles, coyotes, grouse, coyotes, foxes, and wolves are primary “targets” in this area for tourists and photographers. From Kelly, tours usually head north on the East Boundary Road, which is asphalt covered for around 7 miles to the National Forest Access Road.

When the 2.5 winter road closure goes into effect in mid to late December, visitors and tours are forced to backtrack to the roundabout at Gros Ventre Junction to once again head north. This effectively doubles the traffic on that section of the road and adds considerably to the travel time and gasoline expenses for visitors and tour operators—and it essentially eliminates an important historic and scenic area of the park.

The southern and eastern portions of the park are now very busy in the winter! On any given day, a moose or two, spotted close to the road, can create a jam of 10-20 vehicles, much like the traditional “bear jams” in the summer. With heavier winter traffic in the area, a jam develops quickly. Last spring’s wolves created even larger jams.

Plowing the 2.5 miles during the winter only makes sense now—and for a variety of reasons!

Safety

With the extra traffic and increased number of visitors on the east side of the park, it’s only a matter of time before there is an accident requiring medical attention. A coronary event, like a heart attack, could be deadly. Keeping the road open would mean a much quicker response time from medic teams leaving the Park Headquarters at Moose. The extra 15-20 minutes for the full route could cost someone their life. Unless one of the touring vans have one onboard, there are no defibrillators in the area.

Efficiency

Someone might suggest the 2.5 mile closure saves the Park Service some money for the plowing.  However, there’s a reasonably good possibility that opening the section could actually save money. Rangers could more efficiently patrol the eastern and southern region and the snow plows could blast on through the 2.5 miles and continue their east side plowing. From a bigger picture, less gasoline would be used by a variety of companies like FedEx, UPS and the numerous tour operators. Visitors and tour operators could spread out and reduce traffic on the East Boundary Road and Gros Ventre Roads.

The Numbers

VisitorData

The chart above was supplied to me by the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce (Thanks Rick Howe). It documents years back to 1992…I would love to see the chart all the way back to 1986 when we moved here! Notice the incredible increase in traffic from the early years in December through March (shown inside the red boxes). Additionally, I found this related article written by the staff at the National Elk RefugeDecember numbers set new visitation records. The simple fact that enough tourists are visiting the area to support the ever increasing number of tour operations should be evidence enough.

I can only speak with empirical data, but the changes have been easy to see. I recently drove downtown to take a few photos of the Christmas lights on the Town Square. I had to search for a parking space! A canon shot down Broadway or Cache would take out countless tourists and vehicles!

Antelope Flats Road

Time for a Change!

Each time I submit my monthly reports to Grand Teton National Park (Best of the Tetons Photo Tours), I include this line in the comments box, “Please consider keeping Antelope Flats Road open during the winter months for safety reasons—and to help reduce congestion on the east side of the park”. I’ve been doing that for three or four years, but I fear the comments never make it to the person that could affect the change. Possibly this post will reach the decision makers. The photo above shows there is a need and willingness to visit areas along Antelope Flats Road in the winter. Keep the road open and people will use it!

John Moulton Barn

A Photographer’s Point of View

Most of what I’ve written above would probably fit into the “nuts and bolts” issues. How about a photographer’s perspective? Summer visitors usually find the Park, concessions, and vendors in full operation with essentially all roads and pull-outs open. Late in the fall, visitor centers close, businesses winterize and lock their doors, and important roads are barricaded—such as portions of the Moose-Wilson Road and portions of the Teton Park Road (Inner Park Loop Road), along with areas like Schwabacher Landing. The Chapel of the Transfiguration’s entrance road is almost always blocked by piles of snow. As the closures take place, we feel “pinched” into smaller and smaller zones of the Park. Typically, most of the wildlife in Grand Teton National Park have either left the area, hibernated, or moved to the southern portions of the park. Thus, many of the Wildlife Tours and Safaris stay south where the action is. Farther north, the historic old buckrail fences have been removed. They were a hallmark of the park, but their loss eliminates a few of our “go to” winter landscape locations from earlier days. As I mentioned, it feels like we are being forced to stay south, and with all of the tours, tourists, and restricted access, it can feel crowded at times.

Artists and photographers are often encouraged to include foreground, middle ground, and background in most of their photos. As winter progresses, finding good foreground subjects becomes increasingly difficult in Grand Teton National Park. That’s where access to Antelope Flats and the Mormon Row barns is so important. They provide a romantic foreground subjects, with the Tetons and clouds serving as middle ground and background elements.

February Pano

Yes, it is possible to hike, cross country ski, or snow shoe out to the Mormon Row barns—even after the gates are locked. Not many casual GTNP visitors actually take up the challenge, and none of the tour companies are allowed to legally make a hike of that distance. Mormon Row is slightly more than a mile from the west gate, taking 20-30 minutes to hike or snow shoe in (or much longer). Early morning temperatures can hover well below 0° F, making an outing potentially dangerous for anyone not prepared for the cold conditions. I’ve been there with -30° F and a slight breeze. My fingers and toes were definitely hurting when I made it back to my vehicle, and that was without the long hike to and from the location. The photo above was taken at 7:30 am in mid-February last year.

December Full Moon

The December full moon sets with the Mormon Row barns and Grand Teton Range in a single composition. In 2018, the full moon was on December 22nd, but both mornings were cloudy with no chance to take advantage of this year’s late road closure. This photo was taken on December 11th, 2011. Notes in last year’s Daily Journal indicate the road closed on December 23rd.

During the winter, there are many times when I find myself at the locked gate at Mail Box Corner. I would like to “check out” the areas around the Moose Visitor’s Center and the open areas of the Moose-Wilson Road. I realize it will mean driving 16.1 miles to get to Moose Junction. Without the winter road closure, I could be there quickly with a much shorter 4.4 mile drive. The feeling is worse yet if I contemplate driving to Oxbow Bend or Snake River Overlook from Mail Box Corner.

A Few Compromise Suggestions

I would love to see Antelope Flats Road open all year. That should be evident. However, any of several compromises might be workable for winter tourists and tour operators.

  • First, Rangers could lock the gates temporarily if the road drifts in with snow. The Park Service could designate Antelope Flats Road as “low priority” for the snow plows, meaning it might be one of the last roads to be cleared after a big winter storm.
  • Another option might be workable if the Park Service designated they would plow the road only on Tuesdays and Fridays (any two days would work). Tour operators would know which days they could depend on for the 3.3 mile crossing. If the road drifts in, the gates could be locked until the next scheduled plowing.
  • Mormon Row Road wouldn’t need to be plowed. Likewise, the new rest room could be left closed during the winter months.

Road Closure

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