One of the things I look for is the Great Horned Owl. When I was a small child I saw my first. It had been killed (by a car as I recall) and my uncle, a taxidermist, was going to stuff it. He brought my brothers and I to see it, and the three of us held it, wings outstretched. The size of this bird was incredible to me, as were its talons.
From the point on, I have always kept one eye open for these great owls. I have never seen one alive in the wild, until this past week. Our woods is sometimes home to a Great Horned Owl. I have spent many evenings sitting on our screened porch listening to it in the dark. The whole woods goes quiet to listen, and the call travels for miles, making it hard to pinpoint exactly where it is. However, you know it’s a Great Horned Owl when you hear it.
Once, while standing on our deck and observing a full moon, I saw it fly silently across the sky. Only its silhouette was visible, but even that was magnificent. Recently, my wife drove into our lane one evening and her headlights caught a large animal on the ground. “It looked like a groundhog, but then it stood up and flew away.”
Last Thursday we took our girls out for a walk before bed, following the edge of the woods, pausing as we came to the mouth of a creek. As we approached the creek’s edge, I saw a bird descend from a tree to my left. At first I mistook it for a heron, but its flight pattern was wrong. As I turned my head I could see that its body was too short and round, and its colouring too dark for a heron. “That’s an owl!” I cried, as it flew into the woods. I ran after it. I couldn’t see where it had gone, but hoped that we had spooked it and it would land a short distance away. After running 500 feet, I paused, trying to decided which way to go. Ahead and to my right I could hear a great commotion: a Red Wing Blackbird or Eastern Kingbird was making a great raucous, and clearly upset that something had come within the vicinity of its nest. I took off toward the sound.
Deeper into the woods I came to a tree with a limb extending parallel to the ground, low, and bare of leaves. There in the middle, with its back to me, and a furious Red Wing Blackbird encircling it, was the owl. I slowed my pace and walked as quietly as I could. Approaching from behind, and with the little bird masking my sound, I managed to get underneath, and then beyond the owl. As I looked up at it, it swivelled its great head around and down toward me. It’s two yellow eyes pinned me to the ground. We both sat motionless, looking at each other for 30 seconds or more.
Eventually I decided to call to it, and did my best owl call. Upon hearing me, it cocked its head to one side and leaned in toward me. Figuring I had done something right, I tried again. This time it took off deep into the woods. I didn’t go after it, but stood there pondering what I had just seen.
I have spent the past 4 years looking for that particular owl. An owl, like so much in nature, is not something you can see because you want to, or have because you desire it. It does not exist for your pleasure or consumption. It is not on display like the work of art, or available like the manufactured good. It is, quite simply, a gift to have this experience. Tonight I went and walked the same path, and saw nothing. I might never see it again, but I will continue to be open to receiving this gift, which is the proper mode of being in the world.