The greatest day in the history of nocturnal birds, Yosemity National Park

It was a cool late August morning in Yosemite National Park. What had meant to be a very early start took a bit longer as I followed Tioga Pass road through the high country into Yosemite Valley proper with its immense granite walls glowing red in the dawn light. Leaving the valley behind, the winding road led back into the high country towards Glacier Point. There were dozens of spectacular views along the way, many promising looking patches for birds, but I was trying to keep an appointment with one of Yosemite’s most enigmatic birds, the great gray owl.

Great gray owls mainly inhabit the endless swaths of boreal forest from eastern Canada through Alaska. There are a few places where the species can be found further south, mostly during winter, and the small resident population found within the high elevation boreal forest of Yosemite National Park represents the southern extreme of its range.

Within the park certain swampy meadows are often frequented by the owls and dawn or dusk offer the best chance to spot one. I had my hopes on a small clearing called McGurk Meadow near Glacier Point. Arriving quite late in the morning I parked in a small pullout and plunged into the forest along a narrow trail. Since it was late August, end of the breeding season, the morning was fairly quiet as most migrants appeared to have departed.

The sun was already up above the short spruce trees, too late to look for great gray owl, and the woods were hushed. Undeterred I walked on for about twenty minutes until I heard a chip. Stopping and listening, I figured it was a feeding flock as the calls multiplied, but it didn’t seem to be moving. Eventually I stepped off the trail and tracked down a small group of passerines including hermit, black-throated gray, Nashville warblers and some mountain chickadees. The birds were buzzing the top of a spruce; ignoring my presence they continued to mob something. I carefully scanned the area and after five minutes found the culprit. A northern pygmy-owl, size wise the antithesis of a great gray owl, perched brazenly in full view near the top of the spruce, clutching a not so fortunate dark-eyed junco in its talons.

Northern Pygmy-Owl clutching a junco, Yosemity National Park, California Photo Stephan Lorenz

When I finally reached the meadow the sun had already burnt off the morning mist. I checked the line of spruce trees, but figured I had to return at dusk or the following morning. An American robin was incessantly calling back in a dense patch of wood. I tried to observe a sapsucker, but the robin kept up a racket. I had not walked ten feet into the forest towards the robin when a great gray owl, piercing yellow eyes looked down at me. It was perched on an exposed branch, apparently on its way to roost as it flew off twenty feet and settled near the trunk of a stout spruce.

It was not even nine o’clock in the morning and I had already had one of my better birding days all thanks to the birds themselves literally leading me into the right direction.

Great Gray Owl Yosemity National Park, California Photo Stephan Lorenz

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One response to this post.

  1. In 1998 it was a banner year to see great grays in Algonquin park canada. We were up for 4 days and saw 6-8 grays every day. Food was scarce for them and they gladly accepted our tossed white mice in exchange for some great pictures. We fed one male owl 4 mice and he practically sat on the leader’s boot.

    Reply

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