by Bryce W. Robinson
Another highlight from my recent time spent on the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge was happening upon three Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) owlets that had “branched”.
In fact, these birds had hatched in a nest that was nothing more than the top of a birch snag, so far as I could tell. There were no nest structures in the area, only a plenty of broken tree snags about 5 meters tall. I believe that once they were too big to fit, the owlets fledged. Each bird was on a partly fallen truck leaning diagonally, a ramp for them to climb from the ground to relative safety from ground predators.
The first bird my friend Nick and I found sat staring at us, but with only one eye open. It appears from the photo that a Moose Fly (Tabanidae sp.) was biting its eyelid. I became very familiar with these flies during my time in the area, and felt for the poor young owlet. The flies have pinchers on their mouth that they use to break skin, and from my experience with them it seems they do this to draw the blood and then feed. At least mosquitoes are mostly painless during their blood draws…
We first heard the owlets begging calls while conducting a point count a few hundred meters away, but by the time we found them they had quieted down and stood extremely still, staring at us. Without a doubt we were the first humans these birds had seen. The Innoko is a very remote place, as we never saw a single person during our five-day stay in the area despite covering a distance of over 200 river miles round trip.
I was enamored. I’ve seen very few Great Gray Owls in my life, and seeing birds at this age was a first. It has always been something I’ve wanted to see, so it was a dream realized. After getting our fill of the owlets, we began searching for an adult. We soon found a large ghost-like owl, the adult Strix nebulosa, 50 meters from the owlets. In my experience with Great Gray Owls, they’ve been extremely tame birds that tolerate your intrusion and lend themselves to photography. This birds was not tame, and unfortunately flew into the forest as we drew near. I wasn’t able to get any photos, but I managed to watch through my binoculars for a bit.
I captured a short clip of one of the nestlings (below). It’s a rather uneventful short clip, but it adequately describes the experience and the owlets tactful poise as it remained motionless as it kept eyes on Nick while I took video.
Here it is in full, the media from my first encounter of a Great Gray Owl family in the remote Alaskan wilderness.