This owl is aptly named: it’s gray and it is pretty great. So great, in fact, that this particular owl–a rare visitor to Maine–inspired people from 9 hours away to come and see it near the Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge over the past few weeks.

Hopefully the photo above illustrates what makes Great Gray Owls so appealing. They have striking yellow eyes, angled in such a way that they often look either mean or intensely focused. Their facial disk is especially wide and round, the largest of any raptor–a feature reminiscent of a satellite dish that helps them pinpoint the quiet movements of their small mammal prey on the ground. And despite their mottled gray camouflage, they have a conspicuous white “bowtie” under their beaks.

However, it is their relative rarity that makes them all the more striking to observe in person. In North America, Great Gray Owls (Strix nebulosa) usually live in the boreal forests of Canada, with only an estimated 7% of their breeding population in the US, primarily in the western states. They also range from Finland east across northern Asia. Apparently one of these owls is spotted every four years or so in Maine, driven by hopes of plentiful food.

While these owls look remarkably huge and are the tallest American owl, they are actually remarkably fluffy and weigh 1.5-3.75lbs–much less than other large owls. Snowy Owls, for example, weigh from 3.5-6.5lbs. Great Grays need all those feathers to insulate them in the cold, northern boreal forests.

When such a fluffy phantom visits an unusual place, it is a sight to see. However, birding frenzy can certainly take hold of even the most respectful ornithologists, so here’s a quick tip: if your observation of a species causes it change behavior, you’ve come too close. It’s a lot of work to stay warm and find food in the winter.

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For more information about Great Gray Owls, check out these resources:

The Audubon Page on Great Gray Owls

Cornell’s Birds of North America Page on Great Grays

An account of the celebrity-like status of our recent Great Gray visitor in Maine

 

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