Birds That Trade Observation for Observation

I WENT out late last night to see what the sky looked like. It was half clouds, and half bright, cold stars. Two owls called back and forth: hoo, hoo-hoo from somewhere close behind the shop, and an answer from far off, over by the rock ridge across the meadow, hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, in deep tones, with a slight tremolo. I'm not an expert about owls. I usually have to refer to a book for identification when I hear or see them, but I think I was hearing great gray owls.About a week ago, on one of her hikes, my daughter Juniper saw an owl flying through the forest. Her description of it, very large, gray, round-headed (without ear tufts), sounded like a great gray owl, and the great gray was the picture she picked from the book. Since she saw it, I've been keeping a sharp eye as I walk about the area, hoping to see it. Maybe I will, though I've never seen an owl when looking for one, but always when I've been doing something else. Years ago, when I was doing blister-rust control work in the Sierras of northern California, I worked my way through dense whitethorn brush. The last few yards, I crawled to get through. When I came out of the brush and stood, I faced a small owl sitting on the branch of a fir tree, not four feet from my face. I stood still and stared at it for a long time. It looked at me just as intensely. It was not disturbed by my presence. I was charmed and thrilled that this small, solemn bird would allow me so clo se. I have never found an owl quite like it in any of the books I use for identification. It was the right size for a saw-whet owl, about 8 inches tall, but its breast was a solid, soft-orange color. In my mind it's filed under "maybe a saw-whet with color variations I haven't read about." The identification isn't all that important to me. The experience was, though, and it will never fade from my memory. Two years later, as I worked through pine and fir forests, I found myself looking at a great gray owl on a pine branch about 15 feet off the ground. Again, I stood and looked at it for a long time. This time too, I was deeply impressed by the owl's lack of fear. I talked to it. Nothing important, just, "Hey owl. How are you doing?" While I stood there staring, I saw my co-worker above us on the slope, and called her to come down. She walked down without alarming the owl, and together we stood looking at the owl looking at us. Its deep yellow eyes did look very wise. I had been gazing so fixedly at this owl in the tree that it was only when Andrea arrived that I saw another owl at the foot of the tree. It flew up and sat beside its companion. When we decided to get on with our work and started on our way, the owls were still sitting on the branch, turning their heads to watch us leave. ONCE, when I drove across eastern Oregon just after dark, I rounded a sharp curve to see a large snowy owl standing in the middle of the road. I thought I was going to hit it, and would have happily wrecked the car to miss the magnificent, very large, very white bird. But it turned out that I had plenty of room to stop. It stood without moving. I thought the headlights might be blinding it and turned them off. We gazed into each other's eyes several minutes before it took to wing and flew over the car an d away into the night. I thought it was the largest owl I'd ever seen, almost three feet tall. The book I referred to, however, said snowy owls are 20 to 27 inches tall, smaller than the great gray owl, which is 24 to 33 inches tall. My sense of drama in the situation may have added to my sense of its size, just as it added to my sense of speed and my worry over the danger of hitting the owl. Even editing out everything I may have added into the experience under the influence of awe and excitement, it was a dramatic encounter that impressed me deeply, and left me continuing on my night journey at a slow pace, delighted and bemused. When I write about wildlife, I do not want to seem to impute qualities that are not there. But over the years, again and again, I have the impression that the owls I see close at wing know that though I am human, I will bring them no harm. I believe they know I am curious and thrilled by the opportunity to see them, and that they are also curious about me and appreciate the opportunity for close observation. In Whitney Valley, in northeast Oregon, in all seasons of the year, I heard the nighttime calls of owls. There is many a slip 'twixt the written word and ear, but from what I read, I think I heard great horned owls. Their calls seemed to fit the pattern described by Roger Tory Peterson, resonating hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo (male) or hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-oo, hoo-oo (female). I saw them many times in the 8 1/2 years we lived there, but never up close, and usually at night, when I saw only a dark form flying. I could never be sure whether they had the tufts of feathers called horns or not. Identification of the species adds something to the experience of seeing owls, but not enough that I get frustrated when I don't know for sure what kind of owl I'm seeing. Seeing an owl is a thrill for me, regardless of what species it is. I am convinced that the wisdom of owls is not another human-created myth. Any wild animal is a wise creature or it wouldn't have survived this long. A bird that can live as close to our house as this bird and almost never be seen is a particularly wise creature. Every time I walk outside, close to the house or up into the forest, I watch for wild animals, identify them when I can, and enjoy them even if I can't classify them. If I happen to see one of these owls I've been hearing, it is an extra large thrill. But seeing it won't be because I've been wise enough to find it and get close, but because the owl lets me see it, has the wisdom to know I will do it no harm, and decides to trade observation for observation.

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