MOUNTAIN GREEN — The harsh winter cold has brought not only avalanches and flooding this year, but a rare bird not seen in Utah for close to 30 years.
Utahns gathered in Mountain Green Feb. 9 after someone spotted the largest owl in the world, the Great Gray Owl, on the side of a road. Utah resident Amber Watkins-Olpin said she was driving to work in the morning and saw a group of people taking pictures and looking at something.
“I just looked to the side of the road and (the owl) was on the ground, and it was absolutely incredible. It was sitting there perched so calmly, and I left for a couple hours and came back, and it was in a tree,” Watkins-Olpin said.
After returning from work, Watkins-Olpin went home and brought her family back to where the owl had stayed. Her husband, Chris Olpin, brought a camera and captured footage of the owl, which was later verified by Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologist, Russell Norvell, program coordinator of the Avian Conservation.
According to Norvell, the owl in the footage is, in fact, a Great Gray Owl, the likes of which have not been seen in Utah since 1989, according to Norvell and the Utah Records Committee.
“The Great Gray Owl normally does not breed in Utah — this is the southern edge of its range,” Norvell said.
According to Norvell, a severe winter can cause the birds to migrate farther south than they normally would. This phenomenon is called irruption.
“Owls who migrate from the north are pushed south,” Norvell said. “It can also happen when there’s a crash in prey populations.”
The Great Gray Owl breeds in the north, in both the Eastern and Western Hemisphere, but normally resides much farther north than Utah.
In terms of length, it is also the largest owl in the world and its wingspan can reach up to 5 feet, though the average is usually around 4 feet 8 inches for females and 4 feet 7 inches for males.
“I’ve seen screech owls. I’ve seen barn owls, but nothing of that caliber, it was huge,” Watkins-Olpin said. “It was probably 2 feet (tall), close to that.”
Female Great Gray Owls do indeed average about 28 inches tall and males average 26 inches, securing its spot as a king among owls.
Norvell stressed, however, the importance of executing good judgment, especially if the bird is on private property. Though it may seem docile, birdwatchers should demonstrate respect for the bird and the property on which it is found.
Liesl is a web reporter at KSL.com, section editor of KSL Tech and a student at Brigham Young University. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @liesl_nielsen.