Manhattan resident Kathy Drake has seen nearly 600 different bird species in her life and regularly travels to observe them. So when she recently found out there was a great gray owl in Keene, she decided to drive up to the Adirondacks to see it. After all, it was a lot closer to home than Minnesota, where she spent four days last year unsuccessfully looking for the bird.
“You don’t have any idea how magical this is,” Drake said. “It really is.”
Drake said she arrived in Keene with her friends in the early afternoon on Wednesday and planned to spend the night in Upper Jay before heading back to New York City the next day. She said she found out about the owl, which she saw in the afternoon, on eBird, a website run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The program collects bird-related data from the public.
Word of the bird, which has been spotted in the fields off of Limekiln Road, has spread through birding message boards, social media, and word of mouth since early March. It was first publicly identified as a great gray owl by Larry Master, after it had been in the area for roughly a month. Crowds of a couple dozen or more birders and photographers have been showing up since. The crowds have generally been largest during the late afternoon and early evening, especially on weekends. People have traveled from New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and even Florida to see the bird.
The great gray owl is usually found in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Sightings in New York state are extremely rare, although there have been some in Robert Moses State Park near Massena this winter. One was also spotted in Tupper Lake four years ago.
Great gray owls are the tallest North American owl and have the largest wingspan, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They generally grow to be between 24-33.1 inches tall, according to Cornell. Their wingspans grow between 53.9 and 60.2 inches.
Robyn Elman, of Queens, said she first saw the owl in a photo on Instagram and then inquired with the photographer for more information. After finding out it was in Keene, she drove more than four hours to see the bird Wednesday and planned to return that night. She said she recently returned from Tanzania and Zanzibar, where she saw more than 150 species of birds.
“This experience is amazing,” Elman said. “I got beautiful views of it. I got some wonderful pictures, and it really is an amazing owl. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s definitely a life bird for me.”
The owl has also attracted plenty of locals. Keene resident Ron Konowitz has taken photos of it and posted them to Facebook. He saw the bird at 6:20 a.m. in the morning Monday before heading to Whiteface Mountain to ski for the day.
Brian Delaney, owner of Lake Placid Cyclery in Lake Placid, planned a bike ride with his wife, Karen, Wednesday that went by the site where the bird had been spotted. When they arrived at Limekiln Road, birders invited both of them to use a spotting scope to observe the bird, which was in the distance when they arrived. “It’s awesome,” said Brian Delaney enthusiastically. “I will add it to my life list.”
NOTE: People who go to view the bird should give it plenty of space to allow it to hunt for food and act in a natural manner. The bird is generally not fearful of humans, but will get spooked if approached too quickly or too closely. In addition, the fields where the bird has been seen are located on private property, so people should stay on the public road.
Top photo by Larry Master: great gray owl in Keene. Bottom photo by Mike Lynch: Kathy Drake looks through a spotting scope for the great gray owl.