Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

I have survived my first camping trip of the year with friends and the mutts, in the beautiful Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.  Our target was that mysterious gray ghost, the Great Gray Owl.  I had requested a pit stop in Gilliam for a quick curlew-search, but our first Gilliam stop ended up being the side of I-84 where a dozen or so bighorn sheep were hanging out.

This was a state mammal for me!   Next we drove down Highway 74 hoping for curlews where the best sighting was a small herd of elk of which I managed zero photos.  I believe they must be Rocky Mountain Elk due to the location.

No curlews for Gilliam, but two new county mammals.  I'll take it!  We carried on to Spring Creek in Union County to begin our gray ghost search.  We were armed with some info from folks as well as eBird, and had high hopes of finding something.

Western Bluebird

 Black-backed Woodpecker

We stumbled upon a muddy puddle that served as a popular passerine watering hole, attracting Red Crossbills, Pygmy and Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Cassin's Finches.

Bad photo of three species (RBNU blob on the left side)

We spent much time debating whether we were going the right way, whether we had gone too far, whether we had not gone far enough, etc. 

We decided to go further, then we decided to turn around, then we decided to search this one area that kind of fit what we were looking for.  Amazingly I looked up at one point and bam, there was a nest platform.

We had found a female on a nest!  But being a female on a nest meant that she is interested in only snoozing, pooping, and preening.  We figured a male was nearby somewhere but had no luck in locating him that evening, as the sun was setting and we still needed to set up camp somewhere.

A spot was picked along the main drag, NF-21.  Not a single car passed while we were there and I awoke at 4 a.m. to the sound of a Northern Saw-whet Owl hooting.

SO cool, my first time hearing one!  The rest of the time table went as follows and involved no sleep:

4:50 a.m.  Saw-whet still hooting, coyotes start howling.
5:00 a.m.  Saw-whet still hooting, coyotes are quiet.
5:03 a.m.  Saw-whet stops hooting.
5:15 a.m.  Robins start singing.
5:45 a.m.  Red-breasted Nuthatches start calling.
6:00 a.m.  Turkey starts gobbling.
7:00 a.m.  I give up and emerge from my warm sleeping bag to take to the dogs for a chilly stroll.

Everyone got up soon after.  We made coffee and packed up while the turkey continued to gobble.  We were back on the trail by 9 to hopefully catch another glimpse of the owl.

 Distractions along the way included tons of wildflowers including fawnlily, larkspur, and what I think is purple-eyed grasswidow:


While I was dilly-dallying, my friends headed back into the trees to see if they could locate the owls.   The female was hunkered down in the nest and we could only see the top of her head but we managed to locate the male owl nearby.

He was mostly snoozing, occasionally waking up to keep an eye on a raven or some noisy nutcrackers.  After watching him for awhile we went back to the field we visited the day before to have snacks and hang out.  We made one more owl visit before heading out.

Look at my bow tie, I'm so much fancier than you.

Turns out, there is no limit to the number of photos one can take of a sleeping owl.

Eventually we decided we should start the hike back to the car.  Another puddle was proving to be a nice little watering hole along the trail...

And that was about it.  It was a really fun and quick camping trip with an awesome life bird for everyone.  Good times!!


  1. Ah man...your recent owl trumps my recent owl...but a no-hard-ffelings-I'm-not-bitter congratulations anyway.
    That bird looks and sound well-earned, and it's all the better that they're nesting there.

    Congrats on the largest owl in North America. Where do you go from there??

    1. To the smallest owl? What is that, Elf Owl? I have no idea.

  2. So cool.I wish I was working with you so I could get more juicy details. What a neat bird.

  3. Sooooooooooooooooooooooooo jealous. Nemesis bird! Very cool owl times!

    1. Thanks! Perhaps we can arrange a Gyrfalcon-Great Gray trade off somehow.

  4. Wonderful lifer!! And you got some great snaps of him too...I've never seen that type nest box, interesting looking! Im noticing that red crossbill having to turn his head slightly to drink- have to wonder what is the crossed Bill good for?

    1. Yeah, the crossed bill here did seem to cause a bit of a drinking problem, but I believe eating is where the bill really shines.

  5. Great Grays are the best! So glad you got to see them. Congrats on a GREAT lifer! The thing that gets me most excited about this post is to see the GGOW using a nesting basket. This winter I know some guys who were putting up several in the Sax-Zim Bog here in MN. I was skeptical that it would work, but now I'm very optimistic.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, they have been using these platforms for years out here with success.


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