KEENE - While sports fans were gathering in Lake Placid for the cross-country skiing Junior National Championships, birders from throughout New England, eastern Canada, the middle Atlantic states and beyond came here to catch a glimpse of the rarely seen great gray owl, down from the boreal forests of northern Canada.
A pair of great gray owls had been spotted a few weeks earlier near Robert Moses State Park outside Massena, causing a mini-sensation over there. Little did local birder extraordinaire Larry Master realize that all the while, and for several weeks earlier, one was hanging out near the Bark Eater Inn in Keene. Locals had spotted the bird; they just assumed it was a large owl, noting that it seemed unperturbed when people stopped to look at it.
It came to Master's attention because Teresa Cheetham-Palen, who lives nearby, photographed it and shared her images with David Thomas-Train, who sent them around to a few friends. It was then that Master's trips to Massena came to a screeching halt. He posted it on his website and blog, and shortly after that, birders descended on Keene.
Provided photo — Larry Master
A great gray owl, normally of northern Canada, sits on a fence post in Keene.
"I had no idea what it was when I first saw it," Palen said. "My daughter pointed out the owl sitting in a tree. We had just turned on Alstead Hill coming up towards the Bark Eater. We just thought it was a cool owl.
"About a week later, we, the whole family, was driving down Lime Kiln Road, and it was sitting right on the fence post. It was huge! I said, 'Thomas, stop the car!' He backed up, rolled down the window, and we took pictures right from the car. We were not even 10 feet away from it!"
Palen didn't know what it was but suspected it was somewhat unique, so she shared her photo with Thomas-Train.
"I passed it on to Larry Master, and then it exploded," Thomas-Train said. "I asked if it would be OK if I sent it to Larry because there will be tons of traffic."
The Keene site had many advantages, not the least being close to the Northway and thus more accessible to downstaters and people from New England. Plus, Keene and nearby Lake Placid have a wealth of lodging and dining amenities. Further, the owl had regular hunting and dining habits. Come to the field alongside Lime Kiln Road at 5 p.m., and there the bird would be.
The great gray owl is the largest species of owl in length. It has long wings and a large head, is dark gray and is thickly coated with feathers. It's a hefty bird. Normally it hangs out up north and heads south every five to 10 years, when the vole population gets decimated by too many birds or low birth rates. When that happens, the bird flies further afield seeking prey. The open fields along the St. Lawrence and Champlain valleys are well stocked with voles - certainly this year, as a few great owls have discovered.
The nice thing about birders is that they love their sport, come with amazing equipment and are more than happy to let the curious have a look-see. They also scuttle along as they follow the bird, seeking that perfect shot of it floating through the air, dive-bombing some unlucky vole, or perched on a limb. Their excitement is palpable, and soon you find yourself asking what cameras, binoculars or scopes they recommend.
"The birders are so enthusiastic," Palen said. "My daughter said to me, because I keep taking pictures of the birders, 'Mom, are you more excited by the birders or the owl?' They are just really into it. They couldn't be nicer. Yesterday they were all out with their scopes and stuff. They were more than willing to let us look through and watch the owl hanging out in the field. Then one would exclaim, 'Oh my God, it's throwing up the pellet.' And another would say, 'That's great because that means it's going to feed again!' Their energy is as compelling as the bird!"
Over the weekend, more than 80 birders were lined up. Master said people had seen three birds over near Massena, one in Quebec, one in New Hampshire and a couple in Maine. They could be more, as he learned the one in Keene had been around for at least a month.
"Several people had seen it, they just didn't know what it was," Master said. "The number of birders here surprised me because the birds in Massena have been so well visited by people from Indiana, Pennsylvania, Georgia and everywhere. I thought that the enthusiasm might have died down, but for those who didn't see those birds, this owl is a bit closer."
"They're coming because this is the biggest owl in the Americas, and it's very rare south of its breeding range, and when it does come south, it's only a handful of birds."
Master pointed out that the fields on either side of Lime Kiln Road are among its favorite hunting grounds, and that they are not too bothered by people because they don't see them near their normal breeding habitat. Even so, people do need to be respectful, stay off private land and drive carefully along the road so as not to hit it, as it often perches on a nearby fence post.
"The bird and my wife brought me here," said Kevin Brady of Ulster County. "She's the birder. We arrived yesterday, stayed in Placid. We'll go back home tomorrow."
"I am passionate about owls," Karen Brady said. "I've always been interested in them. I had the opportunity to see quite a few of them, and it grew from there. My husband is very good at spotting them. I've seen this bird in Yellowstone and Grand Teton. This is the closest to home."
"I've been a birder for 55 years," Alan Schoeder said. "This is my first time seeing the great gray owl. I'd like to see him closer. I understand he's been seen perched on the fence post; that's what I'm hoping. I like birding because they're pretty."
"I was planning on visiting my parents, who live in Albany, but then this owl showed up," said Jackson Mesick of Boston. "We were going to go to see the ones in Massena, but when this showed up, we decided to come here. I've been birding for 15 years and have never seen a great gray owl before. They're fantastic; they're supreme!"
The warm weather could encourage the owl to head back north, or it may hang out for a while longer. No one knows, but birders hope for more time and cooler temperatures.