Owl watch

There we were in a tent, in the middle of the woods. And was it ever dark! Everyone else at Girl Scout camp had gone to sleep hours before -- everyone, that is, but us two scaredy-cat leaders. We just lay there in our sleeping bags, wide-awake and jittery, listening to all the night noises.

Most of them were tiny, like twigs snapping. But every once in a while we'd hear a hoot or a shriek that would really make us jump! It had to be an owl on the prowl, and it sure was a spooky sound.

As you probably know, most owls are nocturnal, which means they do their flying and hunting -- and hooting! -- at night. But did you know that there's something special about the way they fly? Instead of beating their wings really fast like other birds, owls sort of soar and swoop, gliding almost noiselessly through the air.

That's why I've never actually seen an owl in flight. But lots of naturalists have. After all, they spend their lives watching the animals and birds right where they live, in woods and in fields, and even on beaches.

One of my favorite naturalists is Robert Finch, who lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

In a book he wrote called ``Common Ground,'' Mr. Finch tells about the hide-and-seek game he played one winter day with an all-white Snowy Owl. Thinking about what happened to him made me feel a lot friendlier toward owls that night in the dark!

After walking up and down the beach for quite a while one January morning, Mr. Finch had almost given up finding the Snowy. Then he spotted it, sitting on top of a light gray fencepost.

``She stared down the barrels of my binoculars with heavily-lidded yellow eyes,'' he writes, and her ``masked face resembled that of a hockey goalie....''

Mr. Finch kept crawling toward the owl, but every time he got within about 250 feet, she took off again. As she passed over his head, he says he ``had a glimpse of sheer, cool com-petence sailing by on pure milk-white wings nearly five feet across.''

After a half-hour of circling around, the Snowy Owl finally came to rest in the exact spot where Mr. Finch had first seen her.

``Again she turned her head casually and looked at me ... as much as to way, `Well, we can play this game all day, if you care to.'''

I, for one, am glad he did.

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