The photo art above by Eleanor Kee Wellman captures some of the excitement generated by the Great Gray Owl irruption in Central Ontario in the winter of 2001. Many local residents and birders from as far away as New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio were thrilled by sightings of these magnificent birds as they hunted in the fields of Muskoka.
The Owls started arriving in late December and are still present now in mid February. Forced south by a cyclic low in the number of rodents on their northern breeding grounds, 15 to 20 "Phantoms of the North" are hunting in the snow covered Muskoka fields. This is the largest incursion this far south in at least 20 years. Most sightings have been concentrated west of Bracebridge in the Falkenburg Rd area near Bardsville but others were seen from Baysville to Six Mile Lake and Hillside to Southwood.
Although it is exciting to watch these birds as they fly from tree to tree and dive into the snow, it is sad to think about the serious situation they are in. Many will not make it back north, two owls have already been killed by cars, some will starve. As of mid February no starving Great Grays have been reported but the snow is getting deeper and a heavy rain produced a thick crust. They are adapted to hunt successfully in deep snow and can break through a crust but conditions are getting more difficult as the winter progresses. As well as small rodents they will eat squirrels, hares and other birds. One owl was observed in early February unsuccessfully chasing a Gray Squirrel in a yard on Partridge Lane. If you see a Great Gray that is not flying frequently it may be sick or starving. Check out this link for more info. How to Identify Owls in Distress
On March 1 two starving Great Grays were brought to Wing and a Prayer. One died on route, the other was too dehydrated to be saved.