Winter Boreal Migrations: Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) Irruptions

Audubon Magazine – Known for their secluded boreal haunts and their ability to slip silently through stands of tamarack, spruce, and aspen on wings that span nearly five feet, great gray owls have been aptly called the phantoms of the northern forest. Like many ghosts, they are notoriously hard to track down, even by dedicated seekers who are willing to venture into the boggy, mosquito- and black fly-ridden places that are the owls’ preferred nesting sites throughout most of their range. But now and then, in the dead of winter, they materialize in unexpected locations far from their usual breeding range, thrilling keen birders and casual observers alike.

When great gray owls venture south of their boreal breeding grounds, which extend across the northern half of the continent from Alaska to western Quebec, they typically do so in large numbers. Known as irruptions or invasions, these mass movements occur roughly every three to four years, sometimes spreading from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, at other times concentrated in only a few states or provinces. Boreal owls and northern hawk owls make similar movements, but neither are as conspicuous as their larger relatives. Whether widespread or localized, the sudden appearance of numerous massive, stately great gray owls transforms the winter landscape.

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