Many years ago, I lived in northern North Dakota. This gave me great access to birding in the central Canadian provinces. Saskatchewan and Manitoba are due north and at that time, they were still wonderfully unsettled by humans. Flat and forested, the land extends to the Arctic Circle and tundra, full of shimmering, endless lakes and slow, rambling rivers. In the early 1970s, once you passed a certain point, most travel occurred by trains rather than roads. Roads didn’t last long on the permafrost.
There is something hauntingly wild and untamed about that country. I loved the silence of those forests, just the wind coursing through the trees for countless hundreds of miles. Almost impassable marshes interspersed, great breeding grounds for hundreds of species of birds.
One of the birds that I searched for, am still searching for in fact, is the great grey owl. This is a big, daunting hunter of the northern woods. They stand, on average, about 27 inches tall. They are the largest, but not heaviest, owl in North America. They have beautiful ringed facial discs and cat-yellow eyes. Their habit of perching motionless, then gliding in grey silence over the quiet marshes has given them a ghostly reputation.
Great grey owls inhabit most of the western and central Canadian provinces, and the good news is, there are few that reside permanently in far eastern Washington and Oregon.
My only almost-encounter with a great grey owl was in northern Manitoba, in a place called Grass River Provincial Park. The Grass River meanders through countless miles of uninhabited boreal forest, absolute heaven for canoeists. The River broadens into still lakes where common loons raise their broods and give their haunting, fluting call. When the River narrows, it flows just imperceptibly faster. This is flat land and rapids are unheard of. Bogs edge up to the river, dead trees hung with moss, quiet ripples showing where a family of ducks has glided out of sight into the impassable tumble of snags. It was in a place like this that I saw a grey shadow perched on a far tree limb, just on the edge of the marsh. This is good hunting territory for great grey owls, as they can be seen hunting for small mammals during the day in the summers of the Far North.
Birding from a canoe can be a challenge, as the slightest motion of the boat interferes with finding and focusing. I jerked sideways when I spotted him, making the boat rock even more. He was so far away in the shadows that my look wasn’t going to be great no matter if he sat there for the next two hours. As I was frantically spinning my focus knob , my companion said the words we birders do not want to hear. “He flew”. I lowered my binocs and watched the huge gray shape gliding away across the marsh and into the forest. One powerful wing beat took him out of sight.
Even this passing look was satisfying. These birds are the soul of wildness. They exist in extremely harsh winter conditions, hunting over the snow, looking and listening for the movement of hares and voles under the deep drifts. The male hunts for food for his brood and research photos have captured the food exchange. A red-backed vole is gently presented to the female by the male. As she accepts it from his powerful beak, they both close their eyes.
Great greys do reside in our state, and I hope to see one next year on a winter trip to the Okanogan area, just north of Omak. With this bird, as with so many others, it’s not just seeing the bird. It will be the tramping snowshoe journey through the winter woods, looking for shadowy shapes, stopping to listen to the utterly lovely silence of the north woods. If we see the owl, or if we don’t, it will be a magical journey into wildness.