The Phantom of the North

Our morning bird walk around Wawona Meadow wasn’t yielding much in the way of actual birds. Is it still too early in the year for birds at this elevation? The weather is definitely spring-like, but it could be that the food supply won’t be there for a while yet. I think we had about a dozen birds on the day list as we neared the end of the walk and decided to stop for a break. As we moved down through the pines to the edge of the meadow, we unintentionally rousted a bird from its perch, where it had been patiently watching the meadow for snacks. An owl – a very large owl – landed on a branch right above me, and stared at me with its owl eyes. “Owl!”, I said. I dropped my binoculars and scrambled to take a picture.

Great Gray Owl

It stayed there for a moment, then moved off to a higher branch.

Great Gray Owl

The pictures didn’t come out that great, because I had the camera on manual settings so the exposure and focus weren’t adjusted for the sun, shade, and moving owl, due to my excitement. But I’m glad I had a picture, because I don’t know my owls, and would need some details in order to get an ID. This was a few days ago, and I’m still excited about seeing this owl. In flight, it looked like a small keg with wings. And they really do that rotating head thing when sitting on a branch.

Back at the cabin I got out the bird guide book, and looked over my owl options. I always go with the most common bird when trying to pin down an ID, but the old standbys just didn’t apply in this case. The Barn Owl has black eyes, ours has yellow eyes. The Great Horned Owl has “horns”, ours has a smooth head. Other owls were too small, too colorful, too unlikely to be seen during the day. Ours was a great big gray owl. So there we have it: The Great Gray Owl. This is one owl that I know something about, because there’s a small population, rare and endangered, living in the Sierra Nevada, and we visited Westfall Meadow in Yosemite last summer with hopes of seeing one. But I wasn’t expecting to see one here at Wawona. Now I’ll never look at Wawona Meadow without remembering this day, and thinking of the wild things that call it home.

Wawona Meadow

3 Comments

    1. Yes, they are phenomenal hunters. She can hear a mouse moving under two feet of snow, glide silently down, and dive in to grab it.

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