In Newport, there’s a new celebrity around town. It’s of the fluffy and feathered type, attracting flocks of bird paparazzi to the area.
Bearing enormous, camouflaged lenses and binoculars, wearing plenty of layers, and – contrary to people paparazzi – trying to stay at a respectful distance, birders from as far as Pennsylvania have tried to get a glimpse of a great gray owl. First sighted in Newport on Feb. 25, the species is normally seen only in the boreal forests of Canada.
“Every once in a while they move south,” New Hampshire Audubon senior biologist Pamela Hunt said Thursday. It’s usually for one of two reasons, she added: not enough food up north, or too much food, and therefore an overpopulation of owls. Either way, a great gray owl will then migrate south in search of a better food source.
“They eat mostly voles,” Hunt said.
This particular great gray owl seems to have found a steady supply of rodents near the Newport Airport, where it has been spotted numerous times over the past three weeks.
The latest sighting came just after 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Haserlet Park. Wayne Snelley of Pepperell, Mass., was chatting with Easthampton, Mass., residents Theresa Gessing, Kathy Rice and Kim Jones on the edge of a field when Rice noticed something in the treeline.
Tiptoeing through the snow and looking through her camera, Rice found the great gray owl.
It was perched about 30 feet up in a pine tree, eyes still closed as it slowly grew more lively before hunting time, at dusk.
Snelley stood in the middle of the trail along the trees, pointing his 600-millimeter lens upward. Soon enough, birders parked along Corbin Road noticed, and began to emerge.
Half an hour later, the great gray owl had an audience of several dozen people. While some lined up along the trail below the tree, others set up in the adjacent field, waiting for the moment when the owl swooped down, flew several feet above the ground and, with luck, caught dinner.
Thursday was the second sighting for both Snelley and the Easthampton women. Theresa Gessing said they first saw the owl on March 5, in the company of 76 other people.
“Oh my God, it was incredible,” she said. “Once you see it once, you want to see it again.” Close encounter
Last Saturday, New Hampshire Audubon volunteer Marsha Richelli had perhaps the most unique of experience of all owl watchers. The Portsmouth birder stood away from the crowd and in the field, using her binoculars to see the great gray owl from a distance. Then she noticed it leave the branch.
“All of a sudden I realized he was moving right for me, and I stood very still,” Richelli said. The owl proceeded to land directly on top of her head.
“Of course everyone in the circle of photographers and watchers went crazy with their cameras,” Richelli said.
Concord birder and photographer David Lipsy was one of the people to capture the moment, which he remembers happening at precisely 4:22 p.m.
“It was pretty wild,” he said. “She was great – she didn’t react at all, which is a very good thing.”
Lipsy was concerned about the owl’s “pretty serious talons” hurting Richelli and was prepared to go grab a first aid kit from his car, but when he went over to her after the event, there was no need.
“There wasn’t a talon mark at all – I was shocked,” Lipsy said.
Richelli took the whole thing in stride – she assumed her head was just a launching point for the owl before it went to hunt in another nearby field.
“I figured if I didn’t move, he would do his thing, and he did,” she said.
Having been a birder for two decades, Richelli said she’s had close encounters with owls in the past, though nothing quite like this experience.
“I was walking three or four years ago on the road on Plum Island at dusk and a snowy owl flew in behind me,” she said. “But it wasn’t on top of my head.”
While this “up close and personal” moment between Richelli and the great gray owl has captured many people’s attention, she and many of the birders generally discourage getting anywhere near wild animals.
“That’s why they made long lenses,” Snelley said, pointing to his 600 millimeter.
Hunt, the Audubon biologist, said people should be especially careful not to take advantage of the great gray owl’s tameness, which is likely a result of having few human interactions in the boreal forests of Canada.
“Give it some space,” she said. Newport
The great gray owl has brought a noticeable influx of people to Newport. Out-of-staters have been eating in the restaurants, stopping at Grazi’s convience food store, and, most noticeably, lining their cars along the roadway.
Newport District Court assistant Terri Crawford joined the crowd on Monday.
“It jumped down, flew around a little bit,” she said. “It was cute.”
Everyone who works at Parlin Field airport in Newport, adjacent to the field where the owl has appeared, has enjoyed a sighting.
Employee Cliff Henderson said it wasn’t necessarily the most thrilling thing in the world.
“An owl to me is an owl,” he said. Henderson he was concerned about all the birders disturbing the owl as it tried to eat.
Municipal employees were split – one woman who didn’t want to be identified cited concerns about people parking along the roadway and walking on a portion of Route 10 where other people have been hit by cars and killed.
But bookkeeper Donna Mulchahey welcomed all the excitement in town.
“I have not seen it, but I guess it’s a sight to see,” she said. “It’s all over Facebook.”
Hunt said all the people, and the excitement (or nuisance) will migrate in and out as the great gray owl does. The timing, of course, will be determined by the bird.
“They stay until they want to leave,” she said.
(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)