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Nature’s Way: Going south for the winter


 Count yourself lucky if you see a a great grey owl.

It is an early windless morning in the dead of winter. Inside the car, the heater is pumping out warm air to keep the windshield clear and the occupants warm as the car makes its way down a regional road in the countryside with a fence line bordering a fallow field. In the distance there is a forest margin of conifers and leafless poplars. Fresh snow from the night before presents a view of pure pristine landscape that is not often experienced.

The car signals and slows to a safe stop. There is something odd about the peaked tree line. A large, unusual dark blob extends from a dead branch of a mature poplar. The blob suddenly moves what appears to be a head. It turns to the left, then the right, centres, then seems to focus on something in the field.
The field looks empty and yet there is something of interest out there. Suddenly the blob moves. Wings are extended upright and they are huge. The stump is vacated with a kickoff. Two or three pumps of the large dark grey wings and the mobile bird descend fast from its perch. It drops down from the perch as gravity has its way, but then the wings pump a few more times before the silent glide occurs, only a few feet from the white ground beneath. Ever so subtlety, the bird elevates just before it reaches the place of interest, then plunges down into the snow with the two legs fully extended. Talons go beneath the powdery snow and close in on the invisible prey, an unfortunate mouse. The great grey owl has caught its food.
If you are a snowbird in Sudbury, you might go to Florida for the winter. But if you are a northerner from the boreal forest, your south may very well be the dead of winter in Sudbury. Great grey owls are just such a visitor. There are winters when none of these birds visit and, then every so often, there are years when an invasion allows many local residences to witness this majestic owl.
Perching on fence and telephone posts, dead trees or camouflaged in conifers, they are relatively “tame” having had little encounters with humans and for this reason are sometimes very approachable.
Birds will hang around outdoor feeders for the mice. Mice like the seeds. There are stories of birds perched on power lines directly above main snowmobile trails, watching the machines go by during the day. Despite their apparent large size, these owls are more fluff than substance. Their body mass is relatively small. They have delicate talons that specialize almost solely on small rodents. The large dish-like face and the asymmetrical placement of the ears allows them to locate and capture mice under the snow.
In mild spells followed by freeze-up the hard snow surface can make finding food a difficulty. Their low flying habits also make them prone to traffic fatalities if they are hunting along local roads. Great grey owls are majestic looking birds and one of the most impressionable experiences you might have on a winter’s day. Count yourself lucky if you get to observe one this winter.

This article is from the Winter 2012 edition of Sudbury Living.

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