Silent Hunters of the Night.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sadly, the tree was cut down by campground crews, as seen in this October 2018 photo.
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.
This chick fledged from a nest along the Moose-Wilson Road.
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.
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.
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.
I have a lot more Great Gray Owl flight shots, but few Great Horned Owls in flight shots.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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