Great Gray Owls

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(HOST) Tom Slayton is here to tell us about a natural phenomenon that happens only about once every 10 winters.

(SLAYTON) A quiet invasion from the far north has brought hundreds – no, thousands – of silent hunters down to the U. S.-Canada border and, in some places, across it. This is not something for the border patrol to get excited about. Though birders might, because this is an invasion of owls – great gray owls.

Strix nebulosa, the great gray owl, is a big bird with tweed-gray plumage and penetrating golden eyes that stare fiercely out of a large, concentrically lined facial disk. Those electric yellow eyes are disconcerting. They stare at you with the intensity of a leopard – a reminder that, if you happened to be a lot smaller, you might be eaten.

Great gray owls are a bird of the boreal forests of the far north and are not often seen in this part of the world. But whenever their normal food supply – small rodents – gets scarce up north, they come south. It happens about every 10 years or so, and this is one of those winters. Scientists estimate that thousands of owls have flown south into the St. Lawrence Valley and northern U. S. There have been unconfirmed sightings of great grays near Newport and East Montpelier. But the most reliable place to find them lately has been at a park on an island just west of Montreal: Ile Blizzard.

So, not long ago, some friends and I drove up to Canada seeking great gray owls. We were out of our car less than a minute when we saw the first owl. Fifty yards into the park, we saw a second. Then a third owl flew out of a row of nearby trees and tussled with the second owl. We followed that third owl into a further field and watched it for awhile. Then we saw two more: one in a tree atop a nearby hill; the other in a brushy hedgerow leading up the hill.

The owls were suddenly everywhere. I walked to the top of the little hill and from there I could see three owls, each keeping watch over its own snowy field. They sat like silent gray sentries, perched high above the park’s rolling, abandoned farmland. But they weren’t just passing the time. They were hunting. The owls’ yellow eyes are unbelievably acute, and that big facial disk funnels sound to their ears so effectively that they can actually hear voles moving around under the snow.

We watched each owl glide slowly out over the field on huge silent wings, hover above its prey, then drop on it, smashing through the snow, grasping and crushing the unfortunate vole with sharp talons. Then it was lunch time.

Hmm, I thought, the rodent population of Ile Blizzard must be wondering what they did wrong to have this incredible plague of owls descend upon them. But nature doesn’t really weigh things in that anthropomorphic sort of way. One life ends; another is sustained. That’s all.

And since we were not voles, it felt undeniably magical to be in the company of these great, fierce northern owls, to watch them hunt in a little park right on the outskirts of the biggest city in eastern Canada and to feel again, vividly and tangibly, the web of life that animates a northern winter.

Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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