Magnificent and striking, the great gray owl holds the honor of being the world’s largest owl, found primarily in the boreal forests and western mountains of North America and Eurasia. A highly sought subject for wildlife photographers, the great gray owl has aptly earned the nickname of “Great Gray Ghost” as low population density, coupled with an elusive nature and well-mottled plumage, makes them exceptionally difficult to find, even in the most pristine conditions.
While owls in general often garner top spots on a wildlife photographer’s wish list, for me, they go far beyond simply being a subject to photograph — they have immense personal meaning. Not too long ago, my destiny into conservation photography was forever cemented by a chance encounter at a local wildlife reserve with a great horned owl hooting to its mate late one winter evening. At that point in my fledgling photography journey, I had never heard, let alone seen, an owl in person.
I will never forget that day. I was traversing along a well-trodden deer path when rich baritone hoots suddenly rang overhead, stopping me dead in my tracks. I paused, questioning that I was actually hearing what I thought I was hearing. Following the echo of each hoot, I eventually found the owner, a beautiful great horned owl with large, prominent ear tufts silhouetted against the very last light of an early winter sunset. Heart racing, I lifted my camera, said a small prayer, and took my very first picture of an owl.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, my fate was sealed with that single click — the owl had captured my heart. I went back to that very spot over the next several weeks, working hard to unobtrusively observe and document this great horned owl pair rearing their chicks, while making sure not to distress them with my presence. It was a life-changing experience for me, where, like it or not, I had become hopelessly smitten with this incredible species.
My time with the great horned owls unlocked a year of conservation photography work alongside a local scientist studying migrating northern saw-whet owls, which deepened my interest and appreciation in how the habitats and environments of our local landscapes can support many species of owls, even if they are not full-time residents. While doing my research in preparation to photograph the saw-whets, I was introduced to their home in the boreal forest, where I encountered, and instantly became enamored with, the great gray owl. And so my quest began.
Knowing that I was soon to attend the Summit Nature and Wildlife Photography Workshop in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, my brain exploded. I was going to be in the perfect location to find, observe and photograph this stunning creature that I so craved to get to know. I could barely contain my excitement. I began researching in earnest, using every tool I had at my disposal to aid in identifying possible locations to find a great gray, from looking at eBird (ebird.org) data to understand location patterns, to regularly visiting Flickr hoping there would be recent postings that could help pinpoint an initial scouting spot once I got to Wyoming. I knew full well that there would be a very slim chance of finding a great gray owl, let alone the opportunity to photograph one. I was determined, however, and went through great lengths to ensure that if such an opportunity did present itself, I was fully armed with as much knowledge as possible about the great gray in order to make meaningful images that truly reflect the unique beauty of this incredible species.
For several days of visiting multiple locations with hours spent fruitlessly searching, talking to park rangers and others, I’d return to my hotel room to log onto Flickr only to find that someone had posted a picture of a great gray from that same day, in a location I had scouted earlier with no success; I’d missed the owl by a few hours. But I was close. It was simply a matter of luck and timing.
I found my great gray on the fourth day of my quest. I woke up at 3 a.m. on the second-to-last day of the trip with my instincts screaming to make the two-hour drive north to check the one location I hadn’t yet scouted. I was supposed to be participating in the Summit Workshop that day, but the feeling was too strong, and I agreed with my internal barometer—I needed to get up and get going. I needed to go find my great gray owl.
Geared up, I headed out in the pitch black of night along a road I had never driven before, praying the GPS coordinates I had punched into Google Maps would get me there. Thankfully, I arrived a little before dawn and was able to make my way in the pre-dawn light. As dawn broke, I took stock of my surroundings: open long-grass fields began to glow against the backlight of the rising sun; tall lodgepole pines surrounding the fields acted as a light filter, streaming beautiful gold-pink sunlight onto a dew-laden landscape. The beauty before me was breathtaking, making me feel like I was in an undiscovered magical world. With such a beautiful visage in front of me, my hopes of finding the great gray soared. I felt this could be the day, and the place, to find my great gray. I was running out of time, with only one more day left to search.
Not knowing where to start, I shouldered my camera and randomly picked a direction in which to start walking. How do you find a needle in a haystack? You don’t. You let the needle find you. Twenty minutes into trekking across forest and field, I came upon a small clearing ablaze with the golden light of the now-risen morning sun. As my eyes scanned the far edge of the field, they came to rest on a large gold-silhouetted figure perched on a low branch, intensely studying the ground below. I caught my breath. Could this possibly be a great gray?
I blinked, and in that moment, before I could discern which species I was looking at, the golden figure launched up and off its perch to dive, headfirst, into the grasses below. I followed its descent to the ground, where I found a pair of very large yellow eyes framed within a beautifully ringed round face staring right back at me. I had found my great gray.
Over the next day and a half, I spent as much time as possible following, observing and photographing this owl from a respectful distance through a 600mm lens. I learned from a local biologist that he was a juvenile male and had been in the area for the last six weeks. I was thrilled to be able to watch him hunt, feed, preen and then fly to a new perch, where he started his process all over again. I celebrated every successful hunt and prayed for success on the next try when he missed, all the while grateful to the point of tears for this opportunity.
As my time with him wore on, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who knew of his existence. He was very much a celebrity owl. From professional photographer to tourist, word of this great gray owl had spread far and wide, and he drew massive crowds all day long. At one point, I counted 65 people, standing in a tight circle around him, watching. He never seemed bothered that people were present; he continued on with his mission of hunting as if we weren’t there. His behavior led me to wonder if he had acclimated to humans and simply saw us as being part of his environment.
Each time he flew to a new perch, his adoring fans would follow in suit, and we would move from perch to perch just as he did. After doing this a few times, it began to feel like we were chasing him, causing me to wonder if our presence was in any way hurting him. Several times the crowds had pushed him to fly dangerously low over a busy road, and I had noticed that the more people were present, the less successful he was at hunting.
All too soon, it was time for me to bid this beautiful creature goodbye and depart for home. I took my last frame, of him hunting from the top of a short pine, again surrounded by a group of awestruck onlookers. I thanked him for his gift of images to me and wished him a long, healthy life. Packing up my gear, I headed off.
I arrived back at my hotel that evening and was met with the most unexpected, horrific news. My great gray owl had been struck by a car and killed a few hours after I had left him. My heart sank and my stomach turned. I was, and still am, devastated.
Logically, I know there are millions of owls killed every year by car strikes, rodenticide poisoning and multiple other human-inflicted causes, with less than one-third of juveniles making it to adulthood. My heart, however, mourns deeply that he is no longer soaring wild and free, through forests and fields, hunting from the top of his favorite perches, lamenting the fact that quite possibly, though unwittingly, our great adoration of his species and the want to witness his spectacular presence may have greatly contributed to his demise.
Over the past few weeks, I have done a good bit of soul searching, contemplating my actions and critically reviewing my steps to see if there was anything I could have done differently to place less stress on the great gray. At one point, he flew from a perch several hundred yards away to a perch that was within 10 feet of me — I took one frame of him as he landed and promptly picked up my tripod with camera attached and moved swiftly back from his new location. That moment has led me to recognize that yes, while there were things I could have done differently, such as not stay with him as long and use my extender in certain instances so that I could be further away. By and large the simple fact of me just being there brings a whole new dynamic to the context of what he has to navigate in his environment.
Therein lies the dichotomy of being in love with nature. Our passion and wonder for wild lives drive us to participate in the natural world, and, by our very presence alone, we will always have an impact on wildlife. The type of impact we have, however, is solely up to us. We can choose to have either a positive or negative impact through our actions, which either help or harm the wildlife we are observing. As wildlife photographers, we have an even greater opportunity to have impact, not just through the images we work so hard to capture, bringing to life the stories of the animals we care so deeply about, but through educating ourselves and others to have the least amount of negative impact on our subjects.
While the general public may not realize that directly approaching a great gray on its hunting perch to take a picture is stressful and disruptive to the owl, we do. We can use our images, our knowledge and the reach of our social networks to help educate our friends and followers, our fellow lovers of wildlife, on how to respectfully observe the amazing creatures that inhabit our earth to cause the least amount of distress and disturbance.
Melyssa St. Michael is a wildlife and conservation photographer with a passion for shedding light on local issues and initiatives. See more of her work at melyssastmichael.com.