Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

June 2017

Vol. 45, No. 3

Field Notes: Great Gray Owl

Nathan Dubrow


Great Gray Owl lands on Marsha Richelli’s head. Photograph by the author.

On March 11, 2017, I traveled to Newport, New Hampshire, in search of the Great Gray Owl that had been hanging around for some time. After a two-hour drive, I arrived at its “usual” spot to see if there were any cars parked, a sign of its presence, but came up empty. I was at a brief loss until an eBird Sullivan County Rare Bird Alert email arrived on my phone. The email stated that the owl was only a few minutes away on the opposite side of the local airfield. I headed over to the spot and saw only a few cars parked at the entrance to an old dead-end road. I parked and got ready to step into the frigid 3° F outside. I grabbed all my gear and proceeded over to where a small number of birders and photographers were standing. Lo and behold, the Great Gray was sitting in a tree not far from the observers. I set up my scope and found a place with a good vantage point. 

For about three hours, the owl didn’t do very much, except to occasionally stretch its wings and obtain a good scratch. Eventually, the owl took a short flight and landed on the nearby telephone wire. It then plunged to the ground in an attempt to catch something, but unfortunately for all of us, it was just out of view, so we didn’t see if it was successful or not. The Great Gray flew around a few times and settled down on the edge of the field. Everyone watched and took photographs from a respectful distance, and the owl didn’t seem bothered by our presence. After standing in the well-below freezing weather for over five hours, we were finally getting some action.

Most of the people watching were in a single group as the owl briefly sat in a white pine about fifty yards away, except for one woman, Marsha Richelli, standing by herself in the middle of the field, watching from afar. The owl took off from its prominent branch to begin its evening hunt and glided down to the center of the field where a lone perch appeared to stand. The last thing anyone could have expected was for the owl to choose to perch on a human being, but to the owl, she looked like a perfect place to sit and hunt from, with access to the field around her. She became the center of attention for a good fifteen seconds as the Great Gray stood on her head and looked around. Amazingly, she stood still and was very calm as the huge owl gently put down. The owl soon realized that its perch was alive and took off to find an inanimate spot to hunt from. As it left the site, I decided I had observed this wonder for long enough and started my journey home. That day, I earned an awesome lifer and created an incredible memory!

Of note: as a boreal species, Great Gray Owls are fairly unaccustomed to humans and have little experience with us. In addition to Great Grays not having a natural fear of us, this bird was also identified as a first-year individual by the pale tips to its primaries. This may indicate that it is an inexperienced bird, and therefore didn’t think much of us when we were in its area. This bird, to my knowledge, has never been baited at this site, so there should be no reason to believe that it had been coerced or manipulated into landing on this woman’s head. This experience was all pure luck, and I felt very appreciative to be in the right spot at the right time.

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