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Great Grey patrolling Highway 622

Great Grey patrolling Highway 622

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PHOTO BY DAVE NEW

If you keep a lookout, you may spot a rare sight along Highway 622, near the Marmion bridge. A Great Gray Owl was spotted there by avid birdwatcher Dave New, Saturday, January 21.

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Atikokan MNR’s field office supervisor, New was tipped off to the feathered visitor by Ministry colleague and biologist Brian Jackson who had driven by the owl.

When New arrived at the spot about an hour after Jackson’s sighting, the feathered visitor was still there, perched 25 feet above in an aspen tree.

“Though it was cloudy, I got some decent photos because the bird allowed a fairly close approach,” said New.

The Great Grey is somewhat uncommon here, as it is on the southern edge of its typical range (it is a Boreal Forest inhabitant) from as far east as Quebec to the Pacific coast. While the owl does not migrate, it will head further south if the food supply (typically voles or small mice) is sparse, particularly in the winter.

Their hunting areas will typically be near a roadway or on the edge of flat, grassland or swamp. These birds are formidable predators: they often fly low through open areas in search of prey or hunt from a low listening post which can be a stump, low tree limb, fence post, or road sign. Their large facial ‘ruffs’ (the conclave of feathers around their eyes) serve to focus sound, and their ears assist them in locating prey, because of the lack of light during the late and early hours in which they hunt.

Using that keen sense of hearing, the owl may capture prey such as voles (or hares, moles, shrews, or weasels) in tunnels beneath as much as two feet of snow by detecting the minutest sounds from as far away as 30 metres. They then can crash to a snow depth roughly equal to their own body size to grab their prey. ‘Snow plunging’ requires a superb sense of hearing typically not possessed by all types of owls.

The world’s largest owl species by length, the bird can be up to 84 centimeters long, with a wingspan of over a metre and a typical weight of at least a kilogram. It is an impressive sight with its large, rounded head, piercing, dark, circled yellow eyes, fluffy grey plumage with dark markings, a long tapered tail with a rounded edge, and a white ‘bow tie’ under its chin.

Unlike other Canadian owls, the Great Grey does not have ear tufts.

They are spotted here only rarely, and are “less than nocturnal,” says Jackson, meaning that they are also active during the daytime, so motorists are afforded an occasional sighting.

It was about a decade ago when the last Great Grey Owl caused a stir among local birders with its frequent appearances along Highway 11, just west of Atikokan, said Jackson.

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