Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Rare Visit from the "Gray Ghost"

When the sighting of an impressive Great Gray Owl in Newport, New Hampshire was announced last Monday, February 27, it generated considerable attention within the New England birding community.  Since then, birders have traveled lengthy distances to view and photograph this rare and unpredictable vagrant from the boreal forests of northern Canada.  Fortunately the owl has been very "cooperative" in rewarding its pursuers with awesome close-up views.  There has been an irruption of Great Grays south of their normal range this winter with birds being reported from Montreal and Ottawa, Canada, nearby northern New York, and northern Maine.  The last incursion of this species south of its normal winter range was eight years ago.  I have heard of several New England birders making extensive drives to these locations, some seeing multiple owls in a day; others striking out altogether. So when a Great Gray is discovered south of the border and so close to U. S. population centers, birders are going to jump at the opportunity to see this striking bird.

Eva and I made the short drive to Newport from our home in Vermont last Wednesday and upon arrival we saw about 40 vehicles parked along Oak Street at the Sugar River Rail Trail access. Walking the trail a short distance to the owl location we passed about a dozen departing happy birders, and at the site joined another 32 birders with scopes and cameras aimed at the owl as it perched on a low limb at the edge of a large field.  With observers as close as 30 feet or so to the owl, it appeared indifferent to all the attention and was content to doze off for minutes at a time presumably getting rest before its evening meal of small rodents.  During our brief visit, I took about 100 photos of the bird of which the following two are typical poses.

At one time something, possibly a vole or the like, below the owl's perch caught its attention (photo below) for only a moment before nodding off again.  As we walked out another 10+ birders and otherwise curious persons were going in to see the Gray Ghost or Ghost Owl, as this bird is sometimes called.

As the world's largest owl species, by length (27± inches) but not weight, it is known to make cyclical winter irruptions south of its boreal range.  Incursions into southern Canada and the northern Great Lakes states typically occurs every four years or so and correlates with low vole population abundance, the principal prey of such a large owl [1].  Appearances in New England are less frequent.  Sightings in New Hampshire occur on average every seven years [2].

As of the date of this posting, the owl continues to be seen and reported from the large field lying just east of the trail.  A Northern Shrike is also being seen at this location.


[1] Chereau, M., Drapeau, P., Imbeau, L., and Bergeron, Y. 2004. Owl winter irruptions as an indicator of small mammal population cycles in the boreal forests of North America. Oikos 107:190-198.

[2] Masterson, E. A. 2013. Birdwatching in New Hampshire. University Press of New England, Lebanon, N.H.

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