A rare winter visitor in New England - the Great Gray Owl in Newport, NH

Great gray owls, the largest birds in the owl family, are rarely seen, if at all, in New England. This is one of those rare years when several of them have wandered south from their normal habitat in the northern boreal forests of Canada and Alaska to southern Canada and the northern U.S. in search of food.

The great gray owl diet consists mostly of small rodents. Those winters when prey is scarce, they move further south. There were numerous sightings in southern Canada this winter, and a few moved further south to Maine and New Hampshire.

I enjoy photographing birds of prey especially owls. And a great gray owl is a rare celebrity. A few Sundays ago, when a friend mentioned a great gray being sighted in Searsmont, ME, we made the 3.5 hour drive, braving the 12°F temps and 25 mph winds.

After driving around and locating the place of its most recent sighting, we unfortunately didn't get to see the bird. It was just too windy for it to come out. I would have been happy with just seeing one in the wild let alone photographing one. So after waking up at 4am to get there and driving around all day, it was a little disappointing.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been monitoring the online chatter on another sighting in Newport, NH, which is closer to my home at 2.5 hours away. Together with a couple of friends, we drove there last Sunday. Temps were 9°F with 15 mph wind gusts. Not too bad.

We got there around 9:30am and quickly found the area where the bird was last seen the day before. Very soon, more people who were also there to see the bird found it perched on a low branch next to a hedgerow, blending in with the background and sheltered from the winds under a tree on the edge of a large field.

 A great gray owl blends well with the background as it grooms itself on its perch

A great gray owl blends well with the background as it grooms itself on its perch

The bird spent the next 6 hours in that same spot, alternating between napping, grooming and looking around at the increasing number of birders and photographers coming to see this visiting celebrity. There were at least 50 photographers and birders. Everyone kept their distance at a safe 80-90 feet from the bird.

Around 4pm, as the sun got closer to the horizon, the owl flew from its perch to a fence post on the other side of the field. The low sun lit the bird in a beautiful warm glow. The performance had begun.

 The owl files off from its perch towards the open field to start hunting for prey

The owl files off from its perch towards the open field to start hunting for prey

A great gray owl usually hunts at night, dusk, and dawn by flying low over open areas, listening and watching from a perch, and swooping down when it locates prey. They locate rodents by sound and can plunge into snow up to a foot deep to catch them.

 The owl flying low across the field listening for voles

The owl flying low across the field listening for voles

For the next hour and half, the bird flew around the field from perch to perch, looking for voles. We all watched in rapt attention as it swooped down, caught, and gulped down three of them.

 Great gray owl with a vole which is their primary diet

Great gray owl with a vole which is their primary diet

I'm not sure if our celebrity owl was a female or a male. Like in all owls, the females are larger than males, and unless they are in a pair, it's almost impossible to tell a male from a female.

At 27 inches or more in length with a wing span of up to 60 inches, great gray owls are very impressive birds—larger than the great horned owl at 22 inches or even the snowy owl at 23 inches.

 Making another run across the field with wings outstretched

Making another run across the field with wings outstretched

Their size, however, is deceiving and partly an illusion due to their very thick, fluffy plumage. At 2.4 pounds, their body size is smaller than the great horned owl (3.1 pounds) and the snowy owl (4 pounds). The feathers that make a great gray owl look so massive are also what keep it warm during winters in the cold northern latitudes.

 Swooping down as it listens for another vole in the field

Swooping down as it listens for another vole in the field

According to the Audubon, the magnificent great gray owls are a climate endangered species. It was an amazing and humbling experience to be in the presence of one in the wild for those few hours and watch it hunt and feed. Not sure if I'll get another opportunity like this.

 The great gray keeps hunting as the sun gets low behind the trees

The great gray keeps hunting as the sun gets low behind the trees

For our sake and theirs, it's more important now than ever before that we protect and preserve the boreal forests and make efforts to curb climate change.