“Ghosts Of The Forest”: The Elusive Great Grey Owl

[ birds chirping
and geese honking ] – The alarm went off
at 4:00 a.m. this morning. You’ve got to get up early
to find a great grey. And I’ve never not wanted
to get up to find a great grey. I love hearing those woodpeckers
hammering and the doves calling. It’s just the sound of
springtime out in the forest. It’s awesome. IAN MCCLUSKEY:Ken Shults
is on a quest.Today he returns
to a place he has been comingweek after week, month
after month, year after year.He’s on a search to find
one of the most elusive birdsin America, the great grey owl.Ken knows that there are at
least a couple owls here.As an amateur wildlife
photographer,he’s taken some amazing shots
of them before.I think these birds are made of
half magic and half mystery. They can disappear into a forest
like they were made of smoke. I’ve seen these birds fly
into stuff that I couldn’t walk through. In seconds, they’re just gone. You can’t follow them
for 10 yards. They’re just poof, gone. [ camera shutter clicks ]The great grey owls have
been called“the ghosts of the forest.”And their scientific name,
Strix nebulosa,comes from the Latin, meaning
misty, foggy, or obscure.Seeing one is incredibly rare.There are only about 1,000
grey owls in Oregon.After five years of searching,Ken has probably seen
less than a dozen,and he’s discovered only
one nest.Today, he’s hoping his
persistence might pay off.It’s a big bird, but
it’s a much bigger forest. It’s hard.
[ chuckles ] This is where we just kind of —
like an owl divining rod. Dgg-dgg-dgg. I think this way. Let’s check the big meadow
first. This is what the male
call would be like. [ imitates owl hoot ] So keep your ears open for that.It’s been a few hours,
and so far,no owls and no signs of a nest.Finding great grey owls
requires intense focus. So part of the trick
is to train your brain to not see the tree. You’re looking for everything
that’s not tree. We’re looking for, you know,
any little movement, if he’s turning in there, and looking for those
silhouettes. There it is. We got him. Did you see it? Just not sure which tree
it went into. There it is. We got a great grey owl,
my friends. It’s amazing how much
they look like the tree. [ shutter clicks ] Ah, look at him. When you find one,
every single time, for me, it’s just like, ah!Through his photography,
he’s been able to watchthe great greys in the wild
like few people ever have.In doing so, he’s learned a lot
about these majestic owls.[ owl hoots ] The great grey owl is the
tallest owl in North America. So he stands about
30 inches tall. Even though it’s huge —
it’s got a 5-foot wingspan — it only weighs 2.5 pounds. So it allows it to fly really,
really slow, like almost like a hovercraft
as it floats and then plunges out of the sky
onto its prey. The great grey is phenomenal
in how it hears its prey. Its face is shaped
like a radar dish for the purpose
of collecting sound and bringing it to its ears,
which are actually asymmetrically located
in its head. And that’s so that
the soundwaves arrive at slightly different
times to each ear, which allows it to triangulate with absolutely extraordinary
accuracy. As you watch them,
you see that head swiveling like a radar dish and locking on as they zero in on a sound
in the grass. I’ve seen them fly 30, 40 yards
and drop onto a vole and hit it, from hearing it
30-40 yards away. I’ve seen them do that when the vole was 6 inches,
12 inches under snow. I tend to like to keep
my distance out of respect for the birds and wanting to see them acting
naturally. I don’t want to watch them
reacting to me. I’m certainly not going to
intervene in any way to try to get the owl
to do something. What I’m trying to do
is kind of capture the scene. Like, what was going on?
What’s the story? What is it like to be this owl?Over the past five years,he’s taken some 20,000 photos
of great greys.Now he’s trying to take his
photography a step furtherinto fine art prints.And of course, he didn’t pick
an easy way.I’ve been experimenting with taking some of my
absolute favorite images and doing some prints in this
kind of old school, hand-processed method
from the late 1800s and working with a master
in that process. I think I might be
onto something.Ken has been circling
the woods since sunrise,and now it’s getting late.He has found only one owl,but he still hasn’t found
any signs of a nest.He scans each nook
and hollow of the trees.Not suitable. Doesn’t look flat enough
up there.Great greys, like other owls,
don’t build nests.So a nest doesn’t really look
like a nest —it might be the broken top
of a tree —so it makes it that much harder
to find one.Finding a nest is the only way
to see a mother interactingwith her young and a chance
to photographwhat very, very few people
have ever seen.Ken is about to lose light
for shooting,and it’s looking like
he’s going to have to acceptanother day searching
in vain.But then, something in the
treetop catches his attention.Man, there’s a nest up there,
about 50 feet up. That’s typical for a great grey
owl nest. We got to try and get an angle
to be able to see that. Oh, my god. Wow. She’s in the nest. Oh, man, finally! [ exhales ] [ sighs ] Oh, my god. Wow. You can just see
the top of her head popping up over the edge
of the nest. [ sighs ] Last year I walked in 4 feet
of snow in this forest in snowshoes for months. A hundred miles, 200 hours,
you know, just ludicrous amount of time
and never found the nest. And I knew it had to be here
somewhere. It had to, you know? [ owl hooting ] And to finally see in that
moment, she’s on a nest. Like, this is… [ gasps ] [ owl hooting ] Now I have this obligation. Like, I know where these guys
live. They’re very sensitive. There are very few of them. There’s a responsibility
to protect them.Ken will continue to share his
love of great grey owlsthrough his photography.But their location he will keep
as their secret.The moon is up.Time for Ken to go homeand for the great grey owls
to reclaim the night.


  1. That owl is magic. Amazing. Nice shots. This is motivating to get out there and find some rare wildlife. Maybe I will go find bigfoot now…

  2. One of my FAVORITE Oregon Field Guide segments yet. I'd love to do a photography trip with this guy just for the chance to see this absolutely stunning bird.

  3. I saw one in northern Canada driving down the two-lane highway it was dusk fresh snow on the tree line, Very still and calm. Boom the owl busts off the tree in perfect camo, the owl was massive. Easily the biggest owl I've ever seen. Ten seconds later it vanished.

  4. Dude sounds so chill XD
    Need to find me a group of photographer friends like this to go on a field trip for something like this, man

  5. The documentary series 'Viking Wilderness' was my childhood. They talk about the Great Grey Owl, it truly is an incredible species of owl.

  6. I saw one in June — three times and it even landed in front of my motorcycle in a tree. Most intense moment in my life. I have it on video from the GoPro on the motorcycle. Very bad quality, but still. So I can relate totally. What fortunate man this photographer is. I totally get his joy.

  7. 4:04 “hey may I have some of your rodent sir?”

    “Why yes, here you go”

    “Thanks so much”

    Such amazing creatures

  8. Pretty interesting how this guy is only seen 12 and 5 years and yet just a few hours and 2 filming he sees what the 13th 1 I guess? 🤨🦉

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