Great gray owls find a surprising home on timber firm's land

Flip through a field guide to western birds and you'll discover the great gray owl occupies the narrowest of ecological niches in California: dense conifer forests next to moist mountain meadows.

But lately, the elusive owl has been spotted swooping through much different terrain: the sun-baked Sierra Nevada foothills where – surprisingly enough – it is thriving on land owned by the state's largest timber company, Sierra Pacific Industries.

The bird's discovery south of Placerville has startled wildlife biologists and bird-watchers who have long considered the exceedingly rare, brownish-gray owl to be a stalwart of higher elevations, a winged icon of the wilderness.

"It's pretty exciting they are being found this low," said Graham Chisholm, executive director of Audubon California. "It shows the resilience of these birds."

It has also sparked speculation about when the birds arrived, where else they may be hiding and why they are homesteading scruffy oak and pine foothill forests, including areas recently logged by Sierra Pacific.

"This may be a case where management on private land is providing more suitable habitat than public land," said Chris Stermer, a wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. "We just don't have enough information to say for sure."

This much is certain: With a wingspan wider than a car door, piercing yellow eyes and a face as round as a dinner plate, the great gray owl is not only the largest owl in North America but perhaps its most majestic, too.

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