Monday, January 24, 2005

Winter of the great gray owl

This winter I have had the privilege of seeing numerous great gray owls near my home. I had only seen one once before, a long time ago while grouse hunting. Now I see at least two or three of them each day on my drive to work. It does not require any particular act of birding bravado to see one either. They hunt by day, perching low in trees or on utility poles or fence posts near forest openings or bogs, often near roads. How easy can birding get when you don't even have to leave your car?

The owls are here due to low numbers of small rodents, their main prey, in Canada. Owls have been seen hundreds of miles south of their usual range, in search of prey. According to Laura Erickson , who produces a very informative radio segment called "For The Birds", the owls are not finding many mice here either and are resorting to larger prey such as snowshoe hares and squirrels. If they do not die of starvation.

A week ago, I thought I had found a victim of starvation. It was up in a small aspen, dead with its head lodged in a crotch. I even took off of work early and waded through deep snow to photograph this unfortunate bird. Its image, wings dangling awkwardly, blank face gazing out at an unlikely angle, haunted me, a visualization of the harsh realities of winter. Only after I got the photographs I wanted did I tell my coworkers about it; I work in natural resources and I didn't want the local wildlife biologist taking my subject away for examination before I got it on film. Today a coworker brought the owl in to the office, and I was horrified to see very clearly that this owl had died of a gunshot wound. Not only is shooting this species of owl illegal, it is so downright IGNORANT and DISRESPECTFUL. And it totally changes the artistic meaning of my as yet undeveloped photograph.