24 October 2016

A Ghost No More…YELLOWSTONE USA (9 Oct)

I have been a birder for more than thirty years, and for much of that time I have held Owls to a higher plane than most other birds. Like many who came before me, this group grabs my attention like no other. While all owls create a buzz amongst addicts like me, big owls have an altogether greater lure to them. The largest owl in North America is the Great Grey Owl. This has a distribution that spreads into Europe too, but in spite of me being from that continent, I have never been in a position to try for one. For the past 11 years I have heard gripping tales of the classic 2005 North American invasion, where people have informed me they were able to see dozens in a single day, and others even boasted of triple figures! All I needed was just one. I vowed that I would sit and wait for the next invasion, and then I would make my move. Eleven years of impatiently waiting later, and plentiful torment from these legendary tales that have become entrenched within birding folklore, my patience had worn out. As soon as Iain Campbell suggested a fall trip to Yellowstone National Park, I had only one thing in my crosshairs. In the run-up to the trip, I had plowed through eBird to try and work out our best strategy for getting this ashen beast, and put out requests for information on Facebook. The initial news was good - a Great Grey has been regular at Bridge Bay in Yellowstone for much of early autumn and was looking good for us, but then tragedy struck, and this rather cooperative individual turned up deceased, having been accidentally hit by a car. Research going back over the years, revealed regular spots, like Canyon, inside the park, but they were often accompanied by phrases such as theyre always there, just hard to find, and other less encouraging statements, which illustrated that in all likelihood we would leave Yellowstone without one. This was echoed by Greg Millers experience in the acclaimed book The Big Year, where he only narrowed scored this Phantom of the North in the last leg of his mammoth year. While I tried to prepare myself mentally for not getting one, I could not stop images of this dramatic owl from dominating my thoughts in the run up to the trip. This was only intensified, when we ran into Jim Chagares the evening before, who scrolled through a series of spectacular photos of the recently deceased individual. However, he had better news in that hed seen another the evening before, in none other than Canyon, where so many had previously mentioned to try for it. We met at a chilling dawn and drove straight to the spruce-fringed meadow, where hed laid eyes on it only the evening before. A quick sweep of the meadow revealed nothing more than a meadow; devoid of prominently perched owls, and devoid of birds in general, save for the odd raven on the wing, passing overhead. We drove between spots, giving them seemingly cursory glances, and turning up nothing. Then Jim swung his car swiftly into a layby, and tensions were heightened; there off in the distance was a large grey shape sitting on a small spruce, which appeared as if it should be straining under the weight of this huge owl. Jim was calm; I was not. He informed me it would sit there, as they often do, even when confronted by a long line of staring admirers, as can happen in a busy place like Yellowstone. Jim was aware of this, but the owl was seemingly unaware of this, as it promptly took off, and nose-dived into the nearest woods, soon becoming invisible to us. This sent shivers of terror down my spine, for I had not even glared into its eyes by this point, something that is necessary for any bird, but especially alluring with owls that hold a stare like no other group of birds. My nerves were shredded, as the glory that had been expected at my first sighting of a long-awaited owl was completely absent, replaced instead with complete dissatisfaction and disappointment. We walked into the meadow and nearby woods hoping to relocate the fiend, but came up empty. Jim showed surprise at this abnormal behavior, and I was racked with horror. We needed to split up, and soon did. Several times, following the split, a large grey shape emerged from the trees and then buried itself out of sight. The size of the bird in flight was impressive, but its eyes, and that remarkable stare remained frustratingly elusive. 
The curious thing was it appeared not to be reacting to us, and taking flight as a result of any of our actions, but seemed to be looking for a place where it was happy to hunt, and so far that was not in sight of us. Finally, after several more snatches of the bird in the air, it drifted across the road and seemed to drop into a narrow forest gully. Nick Athanas and I hurried to the spot, and were stopped cold, when we found it staring right back at us, perched in a pine, and looking every bit as impressive as it always promised to be in my inner thoughts. We spent a memorable 20 minutes or so with the bird, which at one point pounced with menace into the grass, emerging with nothing obvious. Soon after it took off, and in spite of us feeling we might refind it again, did not manage to relocate it after all. Up until this point in time if youd asked me for my personal Bird of the Year, my immediate answer would be the Northern Saw-whet Owl, which I watched at 4am on crisp April morning on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; however, now its title was in serious jeopardy. If Id had just a tad more time with the Grey Ghost the title would have been a shoe-in, but I felt it left me greedily yearning for more, and we vowed to search again for it in our coming days in Yellowstone


Russell Jenkins said...

Wonderful story and pictures. I have them in my head now. Congratulations.

- said...

Great blog Sam. GOO is still the best bird I've seen. This brought my only experience with the Grey Ghost alive. Thanks Jono birdingdad.blogspot.co.uk

- said...

That should read GGO!