The Day Of The Great Gray Owl
By Florence Welles
On Tuesday, the 15th of July, 1952, we were not looking for the great gray owl. In fact, if we had been told that we might find and photograph a specimen of the large bird with a wing-spread of four and a half feet or more, we would have been most hesitant about believing it.
What took us from Crater Lake to an area of lodgepole pines a few miles west of Fort Klamath that day was the information that on a deserted farm known as "the old Turner place" we might find a coyote family. Our informant did not know the exact location of this family, but his idea seemed to be that it was living among the roots of a fallen tree. The prospect of seeing and, with luck, photographing coyote pups was an exciting one.
About the middle of the afternoon we arrived. Our first impression was that the woods were full of fallen trees. Which direction to take?
Would we have to wait for dusk when the mother coyote would be venturing forth in search of food for herself and her family, at which time we might be lucky enough to see her? We stopped the jeep near a group of forlorn and empty buildings in a clearing a half-mile in from the road The place seemed to sag all over, and the setting looked ideal for a Hallowe'en party.
At first, the only wildlife in evidence was a welcoming committee of mosquitoes, which no doubt changed shifts but which stayed with us throughout the hours we were there. Carrying the camera equipment that we do doesn't leave a hand free for swatting! My husband was carrying the 500 mm. lens on a Leica which was mounted on a tripod, and I was carrying the 300 mm. lens, also on a tripod-mounted Leica. The forest floor was a criss-crossed tangle of fallen trees, and the going was rather rough. My husband struck off in one direction and I in another.
After intense looking for some time, I was suddenly aware of a slight movement and all at once found myself eye to eye with a porcupine only a few inches from me. He looked away quickly but continued to sit there, hunched over and perfectly quiet except for the gentle motion of his quills produced by his breathing. I spoke to him. No response. He just continued to ignore me and to stare off and away in what seemed to be a very rude and sullen manner. We already had pictures of both adult and young porcupines. So, as this fellow seemed not in the least interested in my company, I decided to move along. I looked back occasionally until he was out of sight. He still hadn't moved.
I soon forgot him because it now seemed that a certain lodgepole pine just ahead of me was filled with a flock of small birds. Their chirping grew louder, and then softer, as I passed the tree. But where were the birds? Not a single bird could I see, although I searched each branch. I walked around the tree, and the noise grew louder again. Now I could see the spot from which it was coming. The little birds were not on the tree but in it. On tip-toe, I looked into a hole on the trunk. There was an immediate crescendo of chirping followed by complete silence. I could just make out three small heads. I thought longingly of our "strobe-light" outfit, which was miles away. I caught sight of my husband at some distance and signaled him to come and look. I watched with interest as he moved quickly and quietly over and around fallen trees with his unwieldy load of camera equipment. He looked in at the little birds. What kind of birds were they? If we waited, the mother would return and we would probably recognize her. The mosquitoes settled down on us-- to wait, too.
The sun was getting so low that little light came through the forest now. We decided not to wait longer to identify our little birds but to resume our hunt for the coyotes. Our rising to leave was the cue for the tiny chorus to start up again inside the tree, and with some regret we went away.
A creaking among the high branches of the lodgepole pines told us that a wind was rising. Aside from that, there was hardly a sound as we moved along, still alert for any hint of the coyotes we were hunting.
Suddenly, in the branches above us and quite near, an excited chattering and commotion arose from a group of fluttering birds. What was it all about? We both moved cautiously and, peering up, almost immediately saw a giant owl which appeared to "fall off a limb," as my husband later put it, not far above us. With seemingly noiseless and deliberate, slow strokes of his wings he alighted in another tree a short distance away. My first thought was, "There simply can't be an owl that big!" -- but there he was, still the center of attraction for the animated group of small birds which had followed him to his new perch.
After our initial amazement, the photographer came out in both of us. We realized that the light was poor and that what remained of it was fading rapidly. Much of the tree on which the owl was sitting was moving in the wind. We focused on him and hoped that a beam of sunlight would hit him. As we held our breaths and waited for this miracle, he decided to "fall off" again and float away to another tree. This happened four times, I believe, with the Welleses in perspiring pursuit.
At one point my husband ran back to the jeep for the longest and most powerful -- and most cumbersome - lens, the 640 mm. He was back in record time, but of course by then our owl was off again, to a higher part of another tree, and the light was dimmer yet. We tried using a reflector, but the light under the trees wasn't strong enough to be sent back up effectively. He moved again, and again we picked up all our equipment and followed him. This continued, with now and then a chance shot, until there was no further opportunity for getting an identifiable picture. At one point a sparrow hawk dived past the owl and provided a means of judging the latter's size. The hawk appeared to be about the size of a swallow.
Dr. Donald S. Farner, Assistant Park Naturalist, sent kodachrome slides of our owl to Alden and Loye Miller for positive identification, and a letter received August 9th, 1952, indicated that there was no doubt that this was indeed the great gray owl, Scotiaptex nebulosa nebulosa (Forster).
Our last experience of the day was so improbable that I wonder if I should mention it at all. However, although it really happened, I think I would doubt it if I hadn't actually been there. We loaded everything into the jeep and started away. It was almost dark. Suddenly my husband said, "Look over there!" Loping along like a moving shadow, was the unmistakable slinking form of the animal we had originally set out to find -- a coyote!
What a day!
We couldn't have forgotten the events of the day just described even if we had tried. We knew that we had to go back, and it wasn't just to see if we could find the great gray owl again. We had to admit that, in spite of large outlays of film and energy, fading light and rising wind had defeated us in getting a picture of the great gray owl that would serve for more than identification purposes.
Finally, on July 26, 1954, we spent another day in the same wildlife area, still deserted by human beings except for an occasional visit by the owner. He had told us that another family of coyotes had been born. We waited and we watched. If they were there, they remained well hidden under a tangled maze of fallen trees.
Birds were everywhere. We took many pictures, but the high point of the day was finding a great gray owl again. This time we think we have a picture that is really worthy of him.
A Great Gray Owl Appears In The Park
By Harry C. Parker, Chief Park Naturalist, 1952-1955
An unidentified visitor was the source of evidence that the great gray owl, Scotiaptex n. nebulosa (Forster), ranges within this park. A dead specimen was picked up on the roadway one and one-half miles within the south boundary at about 7:10 a.m. on August 27, 1955. The bird appeared to have been killed by a car. It was prepared as a skeleton, and the specimen (CLNP 657) has been added to the park collection.
The bird was presented to the ranger on duty at the park's South Entrance. He indicated that it should be taken to the Park Naturalist's office at Park Headquarters. There the visitor turned the bird over to Ranger Naturalists Edward A. Burnham and John Mees. The donor was in such a hurry that he departed without having his name and address properly recorded. The ranger naturalists were able to recall that the gentleman was from Monterey, California, and that his name was something like "Gamelin," "Gmelin," "Gambling," or "Gamble." However, a later search of the Monterey telephone directory proved fruitless insofar as locating the man by this name is concerned.
There is little reason to question this record. The visitor appeared to be a reliable person who was well oriented in the park and who, therefore, should have believed correctly that he was inside the park when he found the bird.
The establishment of such a record is not unexpected. The experiences of Ranger Ralph Welles and his wife, Florence, with this bird in the Fort Klamath area have also been reported upon in this issue of Nature Notes from Crater Lake. I have, on numerous occasions during the autumn, heard great gray owls hooting at dawn in the forests near Wood River, south of Fort Klamath. I have seen them several times, although outside the Park, within a mile of the south boundary, along the road to Fort Klamath. However, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that the species has been recorded within the park.
It is to be hoped that great gray owls will be seen more often within the park, for they would make an interesting addition to our avifauna. In outward appearance, the great gray owl is the largest of the American owls. However, this is deceptive because, in actual body dimensions, it is exceeded by the great horned owl. The seemingly greater size of the great gray owl results from its much fuller feathering and the greater length of its tail. This bird inhabits primarily the northern forests and similar high-mountain forests, such as occur in the High Sierra of Yosemite National Park, where there are few people. In winter, the species may be found in more southerly areas, including Iowa and the Lake States. Individuals seen in such circumstances frequently appear to be quite unafraid in the presence of man.
American Ornithologists' Union. 1931. Check-list of North American Birds (4th ed.). Lancaster, Pa., American Ornithologists' Union. xix, 526 pp.
Bent, A. C. 1938. Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey (Part 2). Washington, D. C., Smithsonian Institution. viii, 482 pp.
Craighead, Frank, and John Craighead. (?)1956. Hawks, Owls and Wildlife. In press. Ca. 468 pp.
Farner, Donald S. 1952. The Birds of Crater Lake National Park. Lawrence, University of Kansas Press. xi, 187 pp.
(Mr. Parker has been Chief Park Naturalist at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, since December 11, 1955. - -Ed.)
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