Great Gray Owl (Photo by Don Reimer)
Great Gray Owl (Photo by Don Reimer)
Except for the busy traffic flow along Route 131, Sears-mont, Maine, is generally a quiet rural town of unhurried secondary roadways. But the town’s sleepy character shifted somewhat on February 22 when Searsmont birder Fyn Kynd discovered a vagrant Great Gray Owl inhabiting his neighborhood. Once Fyn posted his unusual sighting on the Maine-Birds website, a flood of birders and photographers from across Maine and beyond quickly ensued.

With a height of over two feet and a wingspan of nearly 60 inches, the Great Gray is  the tallest owl species in the world. Its North American range extends from Alaska south to the northwestern U.S. and east to the Great Lakes. Its preferred habitat is coniferous boreal forest with adjacent meadows and bogs; the western population favors tracts with mountain forest. During cyclic years of food shortages, a few of these mystical owls move south to hunt in winter.

Despite their impressive stature and thick, mottled gray suit of fluffy feathers, these sizeable owls weigh a mere 2 to 3 pounds. This fact is evidenced when the perched owl’s weight is supported by a spindly branch tip. By weight comparison, Snowy Owls weigh twice as much. Great Horned Owls have heavier bills and talons capable of seizing larger-sized prey such as skunks.

Great Gray Owls hunt patiently from perches, pouncing silently on small rodents that emerge from snow or grassy cover. At other times, they locate prey while cruising buoyantly over open terrain. Using their hyper sense of hearing, they can also detect and capture prey beneath a foot or more of snow. Hunting activity may occur by day or night, but is perhaps most frequent near dawn or dusk.

As sometimes occurs with rare sightings, particularly those involving northern-type owls, the Searsmont bird generated mixed opinions and vigorous online discussions regarding the ethical parameters of close human approach toward a roosting or feeding owl. I mention this matter not to reinvigorate the debate (and certainly not judge others), but as educational perspective to ponder. It is well known that Great Gray Owls are very “tame.” Because they live in remote regions where contacts with humans are minimal, these owls do not tend to fear humans.

Some Searsmont observers felt that birders and photographers had pressed too closely, possibly to the point of harassment, while others believed that the owl was totally unaffected by the presence of multiple viewers. At times, the Searsmont bird made random flights in the direction of bystanders while foraging for prey.

As for my accompanying (cropped) photo of the owl? I used a 400m fixed lens to photograph the bird as it sat atop a cluster of small fir trees about 200 feet away. Those happened to be the given circumstances during my particular visit.

I recall examples of questionable practices from the past — a visiting Hawk Owl in Bristol that was baited with live (white) mice purchased from a local pet store in order to obtain professional-quality photos. The whole issue of responsible birding guidelines is a matter worthy of our consideration any time we enter the field. If interested, check out the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics online.

Here’s a parting ID Tip: Great Gray versus Barred Owl. Both species are round-headed individuals with similar grayish-brown tones. Apart from its notably large size, Great Gray is distinguished by prominent dark concentric disks encircling the face, making its yellow eyes appear small by contrast. White “bow tie” markings at the base of the chin are an added field mark. Barred Owls have dark barring on the upper chest and brown streaking below. Its dark brown eyes are a telltale feature that is visible from a considerable distance away. When in doubt, it’s likely a Barred Owl.