Photo by Justin Lawson. Owen Lawson, 9, posing for a photo near the spot they found the great gray owl.

Birding forums and social media sites were abuzz a couple weeks ago when a great gray owl, one of the largest species of owls in the world, was spotted hunting by Stud Mill Road in Milford, Maine. This rare occurrence drew birders and photographers from all around, including a little boy from Massachusetts named Owen Lawson.

At 9 years old, Owen has placed 297 species of birds on his “Life List,” which is a list birders keep of the species they’re actually seen “in person.” But before visiting Maine on Jan. 21, that list did not include Owen’s favorite bird: the great gray owl.

“It looks like a human,” Owen said when asked to explain why he likes the great gray owl in particular. “It’s the tallest owl there is, I’m pretty sure, and it has light yellow eyes and a light orange beak.”

GrayOwl0117-2
Photo by Justin Lawson. Great gray owl perched in a tree on Jan. 21, 2017, in Milford.

Owen had only ever seen the great gray owl in books and on the internet, yet he decided he liked the bird so much that he would name his birding blog after it in 2013. On the blog, greatgreyowen.blogspot.com, he posts pictures and maps from his birding trips.

Owen’s father, Justin Lawson, had traveled several times to New Hampshire and Montreal to try to find the owl for his son, but with no luck.

“Daddy always says he’ll get it, and he never gets it,” Owen said.

Then, while on a recent family trip in Quebec, Justin caught news of the great gray owl spotted in Milford. The next morning, he and Owen, along with Justin’s wife and mother, woke up at 5:30 a.m. and drove four hours to find the bird.

A view of the road they found the owl near in Milford.
A view of the road they found the owl near in Milford.

“We drove around for a while and talked to some local people, but nobody had seen it,” Justin said. “I didn’t get it, so I just kept driving.”

Then they spotted it perched in a birch tree beside the road.

GrayOwl0117-1
Photo by Justin Lawson. Great gray owl perched in a tree on Jan. 21, 2017, in Milford.

“We all got to see it for a minute,” Justin said. “It was really brief, then it flew off.”

Owen said that seeing the owl for just a few minutes was well worth the drive (which totaled about 900 miles if measured from his home in Worcester, Mass. to Quebec City to Milford, Maine, and back to Worcester). And because his father was quick with a camera, they have photo proof of the memorable experience.

Photo by Justin Lawson. Owen Lawson, 9, posing for a photo near the spot they found the great gray owl.
Photo by Justin Lawson. Owen Lawson, 9, posing for a photo near the spot they found the great gray owl.

Author’s note: I waited a couple weeks to post this story because I wanted to wait until the great gray owl moved from that particular spot in Milford. Recently, the bird has not been seen in that area, according to eBird, where the sighting was originally shared.

While I enjoy sharing information about birding spots, sometimes it can become problematic when it is a specific bird that is either rare or just popular. In this case, I heard from multiple birders and wildlife photographers that too many people were showing up in Milford to see the great gray owl. It got to the point that people were arguing about how close to get to the bird, as well as how loud to be around the bird. There was concern that the crowd was not only disturbing the owl, but also the owl’s prey, making it difficult for the owl to hunt.

I didn’t want to contribute to the problem, but I did want to share this heartwarming story of a little boy who learned the virtue of persistence and was grateful to see his favorite bird, even for just a minute or so.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...