California’s newest celebrity

When I came to California’s Humboldt County in mid-December, I had ideas of photographing the ocean, the redwoods, and possibly some wildlife. Little did I know, a star was about to be born.

After making a few trips to the Avenue of the Giants, and a few trips to various beaches, I began to get the urge to shoot some wildlife. I already knew of a few places to go after having stayed in the area for a month last year at this time. I’m always looking for new places to explore, so I searched the internet looking for wildlife locations in Humboldt County. I noticed the results were dominated by a Great Gray Owl (Strix Nebulosa). Further reading revealed that this owl was outside it’s normal range, which is usually higher elevations and farther north. In fact, the last time the species was recorded here was 1982! Quite interesting, I thought, and worth a 60 or so mile drive from where I’m staying to try for a sighting.

Great Grey Owl Visits the Redwoods

For a little while in the winter of 2016, this great grey owl (Strix nebulosa) strayed from its traditional range to vacation in the towering coastal redwoods of Humboldt County, California.

On my first trip, I went to the visitor center to inquire about owl sightings and was told that it had been seen nearly every day since it was first spotted on January 16th. Alas, I picked a day when the bird decided to remain in hiding and went home with no sighting and no photos.

The next trip, however, proved to be successful, and a bit startling. Unaware of how popular and sought-after this bird is, I was somewhat surprised by the number of birders and photographers present. At any given time, at least 20-30 people are watching and photographing this owl, who seems pretty uninterested in it’s hoard of admirers.

Great Grey Owl in Flight

Great grey owl (Strix nebulosa) in flight among the redwoods at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Humboldt County, California.

On that first trip, I only came away with one flight shot, but many portraits of the owl perched in redwood trees. Given that this species is not usually found in this area, and that coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) have a very limited distribution, these photos are pretty unique and I’m thrilled to have captured them.

Great Grey Owl in a Giant Redwood

The great grey owl (Strix nebulosa) is an uncommon visitor to California’s coastal redwood forests. This one visited Humboldt County in 2016 at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Both times I was fortunate to photograph this owl, I was in the company of many other photographers. Most of the people I spoke to had driven six or more hours just to see and photograph this bird. It seems I was in the presence of the most famous owl in California!

On my third visit, Mr. Famous Owl was in a different part of the forest, surrounded by smaller and less impressive trees. But, that was the visit where I captured the best flight shot.

Great Gray Owl Swoop

Great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) in mid swoop at Prairie Creek Redwoods, Humboldt County, California.

Being there and being surrounded by so many photographers, with so many expensive lenses and other gear was a bit humbling. Many times when I am photographing wildlife, I’m among people who have just happened along and my camera and lens is something impressive compared to their phones and pocket cameras. In this case, I was definitely the one with lesser gear. These owl paparazzi are quite serious about their camera equipment, and quite willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on it.

Great Gray Owl Pose

Great gray owl perched at the very top of a small pine tree in Humboldt County’s Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

But, as they say, it’s not the camera, but the person behind it. In my case, I do the very best I can with what I have. And while I may have had a little bit of “gear envy,” especially when the light started to fade and my lens could no longer cut it, I still came away from this experience with great satisfaction and gratitude. I mean, how often do you get the opportunity to see and photograph such a magnificent bird in such a magnificent setting? No wonder he’s famous!

To see more of my owl photos, go to the The Owl Collection, or to see more wildlife and scenic beauty of Humboldt County, click on What’s New. As always, prints and cards purchased fund these adventures and enable my photography addiction.


Posted under: birds, national parks, photography, wildlife

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  • Elaine on February 19, 2016 at 10:21 pm said:

    Loree, as usual your informative and beautiful story and photographs of the great gray owl were impeccable. Thank you for including all of us on the great adventure.

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