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, camoflauged 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 only seen in the boreal forests of Canada.
“Every once in awhile they move south,” New Hampshire Audubon senior biologist Pamela Hunt said on 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. on Thursday at Haserlet Park. Wayne Snelley, of Peppreell, 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 upwards. Soon enough, birders parked along Corbin Road noticed, and began to emerge.
Half an hour later, the great grey 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 5th, 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.”