Idaho’s Winter Sleuths
Snake River Owls
It begins as a December surprise of first order. The largest owls in our hemisphere, great gray owls, are creatures of the boreal forests primarily in the far northern reaches of Canada, Russia, Finland and Sweden. Idaho, delightfully sits at the southernmost tip of their North American range. From spring throughout summer into early winter, these majestic birds occupy the old growth forests of Yellowstone National Park, and to the east, the greater Island Park caldera. As winter snow reaches head high plus depths in these remote terrains, these magnificent owls are forced to find a new kitchen pantry for sustenance that has a less frigid ice box. Resulting in southerly migrations from these higher elevations some 60 to 200 miles. Ultimately they arrive in the cottonwood lined river bottoms of Idaho’s Snake River where more moderated snow cover provides easier access to their primary diet of voles and mice.
Photographing great gray owls requires extended search time (read challenging down time). Most of my searching this winter was done driving rural roads along Idaho’s Snake River and hiking through knee deep snow in the cottonwood river bottoms. Most sightings occur during the first two hours of sunrise or the last hour of daylight. Great gray owls primarily hunt rodents using a well-tuned skill-set centered around unimaginable acute hearing (I know…you can’t even see ears on these birds). They will perch themselves atop old conifers, evergreens, or dilapidated trees where they can pivot their heads to imperceptible sounds deep beneath the snow cover. Thereby utilizing their dish shaped facial structure to hear rodents eating or traveling. I have witnessed great gray owls fly as far as 80 yards from their perch and drop in on a single vole completely hidden beneath the snow.
Once their pray is pinned beneath their talons they will swallow a rodent with one or two gulps. They then digest their food and emit the skeletal structures and fur of the rodents in their droppings. Known as owl pellets. One means to discover owls is to hike in their territory and search for these discarded owl pellets which appear as a pile of fur and skeletal remains. Where a lot are discovered you can be assured it is either a nesting area or a favored hunting perch.
It is also noteworthy that while the great gray owl is the largest owl in the western hemisphere, with a wingspan of 5 feet, it is not the heaviest owl. The heaviest owl distinction goes to the Snowy Owl and Great Horned Owl. Weighing in at 4.5 lbs and 3.2 lbs respectively with the great gray coming in at a paltry 2.5 lbs. (The largest owls in the eastern hemisphere are the Blakiston’s Fish Owl and the Eurasian Eagle Owl.) The following images are of the two other large North American owls.
It would only be just to share which owls are the smallest in North America. That distinction goes to the elf owl which stands a masculine 4.9 inches tall and 1.6 ounces (less than a tennis ball). Similar to the range of great gray owls pushing south into America from Canada, the elf owl pushes north from Mexico into Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. For a glimpse of this petite owl click here. The second smallest owl is the northern pygmy owl. This cute little guy below was hunting song birds in Idaho when we came across him…or her?
The question is often asked about what type of camera gear I am using to capture my subjects? In general, my response is “I’m not sure.” This surprises even ardent pro nature photographers. My simplistic response to their surprise, irrespective of my tech background, is that I see camera gear as a mere set of tools to make my art. Just like a carpenter needs a new set of saw blades and chisels or an oil painter needs an easel and brushes. My gear, however, is admittedly beyond just a means to an end.
It is the skill of pushing my imagination and maintaining a committed work ethic that creates world-class images. As a photographer that I admire once said, ‘There is a major difference between taking a photograph and making a photograph.’ The former is something you run across in your travels. You wait for good fortune. The later, making a photograph, is something you plan out in exhaustive detail and then put your self in a position to be there when light, a powerful subject and a dose of blessed fortune come together. We live for these moments.
With all of that said, for those that love the gear, and I get it, following is a short list of what I used this past winter to get the images in the following Great Gray Owl gallery:
– Nikon Z, 70-200mm f/2.8 (Unquestionably my lens of choice for versatility and tack sharp results)
As with all of our adventure blogs, we hope to share a handful of images that are beautiful, unique and that pay homage to the magnificence of the world around us. And, in every case Dotson Images will be 100% wild, raw nature at its most realistic core.
Great Gray Owls — Dotson Images Gallery
(Click on Images for Full Scale viewing)
Once again, we invite you to leave comments, ask questions about our images and mission or to simply share observations. Kelli and I have recently returned from the Arctic region of Norway. We were able to see a female polar bear stalking and feeding on reindeer. Be sure to subscribe to the newsletter for updates on our arctic adventure. To see more of our Mountain Gallery images, showing 100% wild, raw nature click here.
Robert Dotson, Outdoor Photo Artist