Great Gray Owl

Apr 7, 2024 - Written by Ben Wymer

It was the timid and fleeting calls of the Canada jay that drew me to this site. Hidden high and out of view amongst the balsam fir, tamarack, and black spruce bows, I could neither see the jay nor the target of its calls as I approached cautiously. Suddenly, just in front of me, a large bird took off from an unseen perch. It was at that moment my questions were answered: it was a great gray owl.

Bird, Minnesota, Owl, finished, great gray owl

Great gray owl on its perch.

The owl glided silently just out of view. As quietly and quickly as I could, I proceeded only a few meters, and there, in a small clearing, the great gray sat perched on a dead limb. I was beside myself in astonishment. Encounters like this, in dense forest cover, with these elusive owls, are incredibly rare. The last thing I wanted to do was to disturb this owl any more, so I kept my distance and basked in the moment.

The owl sat in this spot for a good twenty minutes. Fortunately, it appeared comfortable with me, as it began preening after a couple minutes. However, its peace was short lived. The Canada jay quickly located the owl and softly berated it with calls as it hopped around on nearby branches. The owl was notably annoyed by this jay, as they clacked their beak at the persistent jay numerous times.

Eventually, growing tired of the jay, and potentially my continued presence, the owl flew away into the growing blue haze of dusk.


Bird, Minnesota, Owl, finished, great gray owl

Great gray owl listening to prey at bottom of the 4-foot high stump.

I began walking out, back to my car. Moving slowly but deliberately over the carpet of sphagnum and Labrador tea, I had gone a couple hundred meters from where the owl had been. Scanning as I walked, something out of place in the periphery of my view caught my eye. Turning, my gaze was met by that of the golden eyes of the great gray! It was perched not four feet off the ground. Backing up to get a clear shot. The owl turned its attention to a noise at the base of the stump. Peering below it with such intensity, I thought for certain it would leap down on an unsuspecting mouse or vole. It did not though. Rather, it began preening, a sign of relaxation. After of a few minutes of this, it took off through the forest. This time I was able to watch it effortless glide between the trees.

Bird, Minnesota, Owl, finished, great gray owl

Great gray owl surpised me as I was walking out.

Again, I set out for my car, but this time, I didn’t make it even a hundred yards before I turned to see the owl perched thirty feet away on a dead branch. Sitting above me, I felt humbled before its presence. Despite probably being annoyed that I kept accidentally disturbing its nightly hunt, it spent a couple minutes on the perch, glancing between me and the quiet sounds of potential prey. Turning and simultaneously spreading quiet wings, it glided from its perch, melting into the silent forest.

I was alone, again, to reminisce upon this unique and awe-inspiring encounter. Closing my eyes, I let myself picture all that had transpired. In that moment, I drew in the fragrant aromas of balsam fir and the mossy world into my lungs. A smile could not be helped as I opened my eyes. “What a night.” Turning, I made sure to take a wide birth around where the owl had flown, and walked out.

Mammal, Marten, Minnesota, Mustelid, edited, finished, winter

An example of the boreal forest.