In Search of Great Grey Owls

     It has been a challenging year for Great Grey Owls in the Tetons. With such a heavy snowfall, and repetitive thawing and freezing cycles, the snow pack was near impenetrable for these skilled hunters. Quite a few succumbed to the harsh conditions and were found dead. The ones that survived, managed to do just barely that, and did not have the strength to nest and raise chicks.

     On a typical year I spend a lot of my time with these owls. So much so that is easy to take it for granted. My search, going on three months, for just one good Great Grey image has really made me appreciate the time I’ve had with them in the past.

     After hearing about the appearance of one in the backcountry the other day, I dropped everything to investigate it. It took several hours of hiking, but just as the sun dropped behind the mountains I found the “Phantom of the North” hunting in an aspen grove. My time with her was brief, as darkness was enveloping the forest I still had to trek through to get back to the car, but I was reminded why I spend an inordinate amount of timing searching for just a moment with these birds.

Grand Teton Owl

Angry Squirrels

Throughout the year my time is mostly consumed with various photography projects and specific image goals. In these instances I know what subject I am photographing, and even the exact shot I am going for, such as the elk crossing the stream in the fog, or a Great Grey Owl flying in the snow. These images require excessive time scouting in the field to get one shot. I call this style “proactive” photography. In this proactive mindset I envision a scene I want beforehand and then go after it. I may not have control over all the elements, but I use research and knowledge to reduce as many variables as possible, and so increase the chances of making a truly remarkable image. However, this thoughtful approach to photography requires a lot of time, and some days I find myself playing catch up in the office and may only have a couple hours at the end of the day to get out in the field. Plus, there are times I just like to get outside with my camera and see what I can find. There is something about going out to photograph the unknown with an open and creative mindset that is relaxing. 

On these days, while I may not have a specific subject in mind to photograph, I do have a plan; I listen to the squirrels. 

Red Squirrels spend the summer and fall months harvesting pine cones and storing them in a cache known as a “Midden”. The Squirrels, being highly territorial and intolerant of any other creature in the vicinity of their middens, and also very small, resort to the best defense they know, an incessantly loud and obnoxious chatter.  I realized the relevance of this knowledge for photography last year when I was looking for Great Grey Owls. I had just about thrown in the towel when I heard a squirrel alarm call which led me directly to the owl. Then it dawned on me…squirrels will bark at anything. If I simply wandered the woods following the sound of squirrel chatter I would likely have a higher success rate in locating owls, but I wonder what else I would find? 

The next day I entered the woods armed with my new tactic. Eyes closed, I stood in silence and listened. No more than a minute had passed and I heard it. The angry squirrel. I followed the sound to the scene where I discovered two squirrels fighting. Entertaining to watch, but not what I was hoping for. A few moments later the sound of another defensive squirrel came ringing through the woods from the east. I arrived at the scene and found the squirrel barking up a storm from its lofty perch in a lodgepole pine, but was clueless as to what set it off. As I spun in another circle scanning the area, the culprit emerged from behind a log. A pine marten! The initially timid weasel was now overcome with curiosity and began to approach me. I stood still until it was comfortable with my presence and resumed the evening hunt.

After an hour of tripping over logs trying to keep up with the marten, I decided to put the last hour of light towards finding another angry squirrel. I slowly walked along a stream bank about 300 yards, and heard another alarm call to the south. The call led me to the edge of a small meadow where I found a Great Grey Owl intently focused on a light rustle in the grass.

Here are a few other recent highlights from my outings in the woods following squirrel chatter: