I first become aware of the owl in mid-September, while strolling along a favorite forest trail in east Anchorage. Caught up in my thoughts, not really paying attention to the woods around me, I would have walked right past the large, silent raptor, were it not for the cry of a hairy woodpecker.
As I instinctively glanced to the left, my eyes were pulled toward a great horned owl, which was perched in a birch tree above a small creek, not more than 30 feet away. Startled and delighted, I stopped to watch the bird, which seemed far less interested in me than I was in him.
Barely moving – and barely awake, it seemed – the owl glanced my way now and then, but mostly he sat still, fierce golden eyes partially or completely closed.
I can't say exactly why I thought of the owl as "he," but I did. I often do this: identify an animal as a male or female in my head, even when uncertain. My intuition may be off, but it seems better than identifying the critter as "it," rather than another living being.
Anyway, he – the owl – seemed to be a drowsy old bird. In more than two decades of living in Anchorage, this was only the second time I'd seen a great horned owl, so naturally I was excited. But the owl just didn't give a hoot about my presence. He was so calm, he must have been used to having people around.
Being a nocturnal sort who makes his living during the darkest hours, the old guy had good reason to drowsily ignore me. But that raised an intriguing question: Why would the owl perch so close to a pathway that's heavily used by humans and their canine companions? This trail system is one of Anchorage's most popular for dog-owning walkers and joggers.
I watched a few minutes more, and then resumed my walk. Retracing my steps back to the car an hour later, I saw that the owl hadn't moved. He continued to sit unperturbed atop his branch.
Again I watched a few minutes. I wanted to stay longer, but I had things to do. But at least I would take a good wildlife- sighting story back home to share.
I didn't see the great horned owl for some time, but then he returned in October.
Once more he was perched above the brook, though now it was in a much older, scraggly birch on the opposite bank. Again we watched each other and then I had to go. I hoped the owl stayed in the area, so I might visit longer one day.
The owl did stay. Whenever I walked by, he was perched in the same spot, as if he hadn't budged. If not for the blinking eyes, the occasional head swivel, or the feather preening, he might have been a stuffed decoy.
Although I normally walk the trail in late afternoon, I decided to do a morning "check." He didn't stir as two runners passed. And he showed no interest when chickadees gabbed among themselves in nearby trees.
I returned a few days after my morning visit, an hour before sunset. This time I was armed with a notebook, a sitting pad, and warm clothes. I decided to be patient and wait for dusk.
The owl blinked his eyes at me, and then closed them.
Over the next 90 minutes, nearly 20 people passed by. Some stopped to talk, either curious about what I was doing or because they noticed me watching the owl. Several who regularly passed this spot said they also had taken to watching the owl.
As the day waned, the owl gradually became more alert. He preened his feathers and stretched his wings. Now and then something along the creek or forest floor grabbed his attention and he glanced sharply downward. But he didn't budge an inch.
At 6:15, a second great horned owl flew in and landed within 10 yards of where I was sitting. The first owl accepted this intrusion without any shrieking protest or attack, strongly suggesting that the two were mates.
After watching me for about a minute, the new arrival flew off another hundred feet or so, suggesting she wasn't as comfortable around people.
The male, too, finally moved just before 7, dropping silently to a perch across the creek, much closer to the ground. He divided his attention between the forest floor and me.
Finally, after an hour and 40 minutes. I left the owls, still perched quietly and stoically in their respective trees.
A couple of days later, the great horned owl disappeared.
I was disappointed and will continue looking for him in the weeks to come. He's one more reason to keep eyes and ears open when exploring these woods, one more reason to get outdoors during the long winter months ahead. Even if our paths don't cross again, his sleepy company was a wild delight.