We're not really bird chasers, or twitchers - those who travel long distances to see a rare bird for their life list. Sure, a Great Gray Owl would be a life bird for both of us, but we both keep a life list so casually that neither of us know how many birds are on it. Guess that means it's not a real life list!
This IS the furthest we've ever traveled to see a single rare bird. 210 miles round-trip to Keene, New York. Before this trip, the furthest I've traveled to see a rare bird was in 2010 to see a Rufous Hummingbird that was visiting a feeder about 20 miles south of my house.
But we decided to chase this bird, a single Great Gray Owl that has been consistently found in a fairly small field in the Adirondacks for the last month or so. The Great Gray is a rare bird for sure, irrupting into the northern tier of states when rodent prey in the boreal is scarce.
Great Grays are known to hunt both day and night, but we heard that this guy had been most active in the evening and occasionally in the morning. But if the wind was up, it might just stay put all day long. We arrived at about 2:30pm and it was doing exactly that - staying put. An observer all the way up from Long Island who had been there since morning helped us spot the owl, just a speck in a tree 3-4 football fields away. So we just settled in and for the next 3 hours, we waited.
People came and went, some just checking to see what was going on while others had heard about this rare owl in their area. Some stepped out of their car entirely unprepared for the 15 degree temperatures and wind, and all of them appreciated a peek through our scope to give them at least a distant view of what was otherwise only a hard-to-find speck on a distant tree. I was impressed that every observer who showed up made no attempt to cross the privately-owned field to encroach upon the bird for a better view or camera shot.
We had heard that you didn't necessarily need to approach the owl - the owl might approach you. We heard a story from a guy who was back after having a close encounter earlier in the week. He had been observing from the warmth of his truck, only to be completely surprised and utterly delighted when the owl, obviously without fear of humans and unfazed by vehicles, tripods, and massive cannon-length lenses, alighted on a fence post less than 10 feet from him and a half dozen humans and all their artifacts.
This was our hope - that as dusk approached, the owl would become active and perch on one of the many fence posts lining the narrow dirt road.
As late afternoon came, his activity started to increase incrementally. First, from one perch on a tree to another branch on the same tree. Then to a branch in a nearby tree. Then to the ground for a bit and back up to another branch. Then a longer flight left across the field and to the ground. Each time, he was getting just a little closer. As he perched on the top of a short evergreen tree, he had cut the distance to less than one football field.
The short flights continued, from perch to ground to perch, getting closer each time. And with each flight, our looks got better. His size and facial features become even more impressive. The Great Gray is the tallest owl in North America, reaching up to 33" tall and his wingspan can approach 5 feet. As his name implies, he looks huge. But that bulky look is a bit misleading: his thick, fluffed up plumage makes him look heavier than he really is; in actuality, he weighs in at less than the smaller Great Horned Owl.
And that face! His yellow eyes lure you in to a spectacular gray face circularly framed in black. His black and white "bow tie", which was visible through the scope even at 300 yards, became even more striking at close range. He was regal and aloof, oblivious to his fawning fans.
He perched on a number of fence posts not far off the road, good hunting perches for him, great viewing and photographing perches for us. He pounced a few times, though we didn't see that he came up with anything. But daylight was disappearing quickly, bringing our "hunt" to an end. But his continued, allowing "The Ghost of the North" to hunt as he likely does in his boreal home - in solitude.