All-Time Great Visits Valley
“It’s a very tough bird to miss.”
Sheridan Brown, of Grantham, looks around for a Brown Creeper he heard in Hanover yesterday. Brown and his wife, Debbie, were also searching for the Great Gray Owl that has been spotted in Hanover. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Hanover — Sheridan Brown put his tripod down, gingerly, against the side rail of a wooden bridge on the Velvet Rocks Trail, and peered across the marsh through a pair of binoculars. He saw only trees.
That, at least, was part of the goal: to view the evergreens at the edge of the marsh from a suitable vantage point. The more important part, though, was to catch a glimpse a very specific animal.
“It’s a very tough bird to miss,” Brown said, scanning the treeline.
Brown and his wife, Debbie, had ventured to Trescott Road from Grantham to look for a Great Gray Owl, a massive bird with an op art face and a five-foot wingspan that stands nearly three feet tall.
According to George Clark, who has been birding in the area for decades, the last time a Great Gray Owl, which has its natural range in Canada, was seen in the Upper Valley was at least 15 years ago. Then the owl was spotted in the area Sunday, and birding listservs across New England lit up.
Avid birdwatchers from around the Upper Valley ventured to Trescott Road, a couple of miles from downtown Hanover, and the trails that branch off of it. Multiple sightings were confirmed. Interested parties lined up along the side of the street, by a large red barn and a line of spruce trees, waiting behind scopes and camera lenses.
Clark, of Norwich, saw the owl by the barn yesterday morning, along with several other birders. He called it a “mega-rarity,” one that attracted birdwatchers from as far away as New Jersey.
“This is about as good as it gets,” said Clark, a retired ornithologist. It was his first time seeing a Great Gray Owl.
Sheridan Brown likened the experience of seeing a rare bird to picking up a hard-to-find comic book at a yard sale. It’s a form of collecting, he said.
For instance, he’d love to see a gyrfalcon, the largest falcon in the world, but it’s an Arctic bird more likely to be found in Greenland than New Hampshire. He’d love to track down a tawny frogmouth, a “hilarious looking little bird,” but it lives in Australia.
“It’s sort of like collecting, only with birds you’ve got the whole world,” Brown said. “In a sense, there’s almost no way to complete the collection.”
But the collecting continues, nevertheless. Sheridan Brown had seen one of the owls before — several, in fact — on a trip to Montreal several years ago. There was an “irruption” of the species, he said, which meant five or six of the huge birds had been seen in close proximity.
He took photos of the owls he saw. One such picture hangs in the couple’s home.
“It just sort of taunts me,” said Debbie Brown, who yesterday was hoping for her first sighting.
There would be no such luck yesterday.
Birders all asked each other the same questions — “Have you seen the owl yet?” “Anything?” — and shared information about clearings along the Velvet Rocks Trail that would be well-suited for an owl planning to swoop in to catch its prey.
Several days ago, the owl had been seen perched on a tree overlooking the marsh, where the heavily forested trail had opened up into a clearing.
Yesterday, fresh snow had packed itself around the marsh’s reeds, but there was no owl. The Browns moved on, eventually doubling back across the marsh towards their van to stow their essentials: a scope, camera and a worn copy of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.
They met Peggy Madden, of Windsor, who was pulling into the trailhead parking lot as they were heading out. It was Madden’s second time in three days looking for the owl — a Wednesday search along a trail across from the nearby Partridge Road was fruitless, she said.
But the Velvet Rocks Trail and the marsh contained within were the couple’s second stop. The first, further up Trescott Road, was at the red barn and spruce trees, the site of so much activity earlier in the morning. The Browns parked on the side of the street at about 1 p.m.
Within a minute of their arrival, another car pulled up. Meghan Oliver, of Norwich, said she had seen a Great Gray Owl in captivity, but that experience would pale in comparison to the real thing.
“I think just seeing such a large wild raptor would be really exciting,” she said, eyeing the spruce trees.
Besides the several minutes spent on the side of Trescott Road, the Browns spent much of their Hanover jaunt yesterday heading down icy, snow-covered trails, stepping over hidden roots and listening for the occasional bird song, such as the cheep noises, courtesy of a group of brown creepers, which reverberated through a thickly wooded section of forest.
By 4 p.m. yesterday, however, the snowfall had started to intensify. Visibility decreased dramatically. The Browns decided to head home.
They said they might come back tomorrow, when the storm had settled.
According to Clark, the ornithologist, there’s no evidence of the owls nesting in the northeastern U.S., meaning this one will probably head back home as the weather grows warmer.
But neither Brown was disappointed with the lack of a siting during yesterday’s excursion.
They remembered their trip to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Mass., to look for a black-tailed godwit, which is native to west Africa and east India.
Just as they arrived, the godwit flew past their car and perched nearby. The Browns pulled over and took pictures.
Then, they headed home.
“It’s just like anything else,” Brown said. “You have your good days and your bad days.”
Jon Wolper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 12 edition of the Valley News.
Sheridan Brown, a birdwatcher from Grantham, discussed an "irruption" of great gray owls to explain how several of the birds had been seen in close proximity in Canada several years ago. An article in Sunday's Valley News about a great gray owl in Hanover misspelled the word. Additionally, Brown saw a western reef heron in Rye, N.H. and a black-tailed godwit at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Mass. The story incorrectly described where he spotted the heron.