Another Season of Owling Begins!

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Last Friday, I went out to my glade with my brother's dogs to sit by the Oregon grape and have some quiet time. The dogs surged ahead and to my surprise…an owl who had been sitting in the glade was startled by their movement and flew away.

It was such a wonderful surprise. I haven't seen my owl family since last fall and I have missed them so much. Although, this is something that attracts me to owls - their unpredictability, their mystery. You never know when or where you are going to see them. And even when they seem to be absent, you know they are out there, somewhere.

Later that evening, sans dogs, I went back to the glade to see if the owl was still in the vicinity, but knowing it wasn't. (In my year of owling, I've never found an owl in the same site he'd/she'd been in when I'd scared them away.)

And guess what? The owl had returned to the glade! I scared it off again, just as the dogs had the first time. But this time, I followed its path and found it in a nearby tree. It let me get very close to it - about 30 feet - and I sat there watching it for about an hour. It was such a privilege.

Then the following Friday, I returned to the glade…and there it was again! Just like last week, it flew away to the same tree it had sat in near me last week.

This is so unusual. I've never seen an owl revisit the same places again and again. This makes me wonder if it has claimed the glade and an abandoned nest there as its home.

It was also unusual that it let me get so close to it without giving me an aggravated clacking of its beak. It makes me wonder: Could this be one of the owlets? Though I have heard it's more and more common for owls to be somewhat unaffected by a human's presence these days, I never found the adult owls I encountered last year to be particularly open to my visits. They heard me long before their babies did and were quick to fly away, though never going far, just in case their little ones needed them. But for the babies, having a human nearby was part of their lives - they knew nothing else. They grew up in my mother's "back yard," where I came to visit them every single weekend.

Is it possible that the parents left the area for new territory, along with two of the owlets, and one stayed behind? Could that happen?

Honestly, I want to believe it. I would love it if this was one of those dear little beings. Especially if it was Vesper, the youngest of the family. Unfortunately, comparing them in photos doesn't help, at all. They still had their juvenile plumage last time I saw them and this owl has all his/her adult feathers.

Owlet or not, it is so wonderful to have this opportunity again to spend time in the company of these beautiful creatures. My hour with the owl was very quiet. It sat in the branches, watching every movement in the fields beyond, every rustle of the bushes. When geese flew overhead, it looked up, watching with interest. (I remember last summer, when Vesper was hunting a duck, and Lyra overhead, perking up at the sound of the quacking.)

These birds are so patient and so slow, and at the same time, lightning quick. When they want to disappear, they can do so in a fraction of a second. When they strike as hunters, you wouldn't even know what hit you.

It's incredibly fascinating to observe them.

Hunting with the owlets

On the evening of September 8th, I headed out into the woods to spend a little quiet time (which I do at least once each week, with no expectation of what I might see. I hadn't seen the owlets in two or three weeks, instead encountering a heron and a peregrine falcon, so I was excited to see whatever Mother Nature decided to show me.

Before I even made it to the woods, I saw one of my owlets sitting on a fence post behind the pole barn. I couldn't believe it. She was so beautiful - still with much of her white coloring, and beautiful "horns" that have fully grown in.

Truthfully, I cannot easily tell these three birds apart, especially when they are alone. Together, I can compare their sizes and behaviors and make a pretty good guess. But when they are alone, I trust my intuition to clue me in. I had the feeling that this one was Lyra - she certainly had that diva attitude about her, which is so like the Lyra that I know.

For the first time since she was a baby, she let me come pretty close to her and watch her for quite a long time. She was mostly napping, but at one point, she puffed up her feathers, opened her mouth as if she were yawning, and made several squawks (still not hooting). I could hear her siblings answering her from the woods beyond, but none appeared.

Some time later, I heard a duck quacking and landing in the pond several hundred yards away - out of sight, but loud enough to hear. Lyra heard it, too. She perked up, moving her head forward and back, forward and back. I thought she might fly off, to explore, but she remained where she was.

I remained there for another ten minutes, taking pictures and watching Lyra, the duck happily quacking over and over again, and suddenly I realized: there are at least two other owls out there in the woods. I couldn't help but think about the duck, who would be completely defenseless against a Great Horned Owl.

I carefully made my way down the hill, hearing Lyra squawk behind me. As I rounded the corner, the pond coming into view…sure enough, there was an owlet sitting on a rock overlooking the water. I had a feeling it was little Vesper, the runt of the family (or, more accurately, the last one born, making her markedly smaller than her older siblings).

Copyright Yancy Lael 2017

Copyright Yancy Lael 2017

I can't explain the feeling I had in that moment. I was nervous, excited, and even a little horrified. There was my beautiful little creature honing in on her prey. All of that gorgeous wildness was about to turn into blood, bone, and death. I have seen what Great Horned Owls can do to other birds - even birds larger than themselves - and it isn't pretty.

I wanted to see Vesper have her moment. I wanted her to have her dinner and keep surviving. I wanted to see her power.

But I also couldn't bear to see a harmless female duck lose her life.

What an odd moment, there in the woods, twilight descending, the shadows growing longer and longer, the sun a stark red against the smoky sky, the pond gently reflecting the tableau surrounding it, the duck happily quacking away. The owl waiting. Watching.

Did this duck have a mate? If her she was a mother, her ducklings would be grown by now, but would she be missed if she never returned home? Would Vesper kill her quickly enough so she would not experience pain?

Whose life was worth more in that moment? The duck? Or the owl? Would allowing the duck to become Vesper's dinner (breakfast?) be fairer than depriving Vesper of her well-earned meal?

I didn't have any answer to any of those questions. But I did know one simple thing: I couldn't bear to witness death in that moment. It was too beautiful. Too surging with life. All three of us living beings who wanted to keep on living. Who wanted to survive.

So I slowly walked toward Vesper, who finally became aware of my presence, and she flew away, into the trees. I felt guilty, but also grateful that I had come at that moment. Grateful that the duck would be able to return home, safe and sound.

I took a few pictures of the duck, then held up my arms and yelled, scaring her away. I knew Vesper would come back if the duck was still there and my attempt to save her would have been in vain. I watched the duck's retreat until she was no longer visible, relieved that she was safe.

I thought about what I'd done as I made my way back up the hill, back toward the house, Lyra still squawking away, still sitting on her post. We so often hear people advise us not to mess with nature. That if you do, it throws everything off balance, sometimes in ways we cannot even foresee.

I find this saying laughable, though. Look how much we have messed with nature in the last 100 years. We cover the earth in concrete, blast through tectonic plates to extract oil from beneath its surface, create enough plastic waste to destroy our ocean habitats, and poison the water with our chemicals. So making a fuss about not touching baby animals that appear to have been abandoned by their parents, or interfering in an animal's hunting habits doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. There are worse kinds of interference happening every day, every second.

But beyond this, using a word like interfere implies that there's a division between us and the wild world. There's us (the domesticated) and them (the wild animals). The truth is, though, that we are all one and the same. We are animals, too. And these so-called wild creatures live among us, and we amongst them, and everything we do affects the other, whether that's our intention or not. (You know what they say about the butterfly flapping its wings in Central Park.)

I have been a part of these birds' lives, and they of mine, since they were born. In their experience, it is normal to have a woman skulking around in the woods, taking pictures of them and watching them. Having me join them on a night of hunting is just another day for them. (Though I still feel guilty that I "stole" Vesper's dinner.)

The action that I took is a reflection of the kind of wild animal I am - philosophical, intellectual, pseudo-logical. I tried to make a moral distinction in that moment (which really was a random choice born of my own perceptions) and when that failed, I made a decision to do what would make me more comfortable. Because, yes, I, like other humans, have been somewhat domesticated, and that domestication alters our perception.

I often wonder what it might be like to have a different perspective - something wildly different. Like an owl's. Would it be as simplistic as we assume it to be? Do owls think about the meaning of life? About the price, born by other beings, to keep them alive?

I feel lucky to have had the experiences I have had with them. To watch, observe, think, wonder. To, in a sense, change my skin just by spending time with them. What would it be like to be one of the woodland's most powerful predators? To be so calculating, efficient, and even, perhaps, cold-hearted?

If you think about it, though, are we so different from our Great Horned Owl companions? Humans are at the top of the food chain. You could argue there is no one more cold-hearted, efficient, or calculating than we are. If we have this in common with the Great Horned Owl, what else might we share?

As they have grown up, I have seen so much tenderness in them. I have seen both the mother and father owls come swooping in the moment they thought their baby was in danger. I have seen the mother owl sit for literally hours at the top of a fence, a powerful sentinel, when one of the babies was too tired to try to fly out of the patch of grass she had fallen into.

I have also seen the babies peck at each other. I've seen them come flying at their father, pummeling him with their wings until the father gave an angry squawk and flew away. And now I have seen them carefully stalking their prey.

I think I am drawn to these owls because of the mystery they represent to me. They live in the darkness. Their lives are, generally, shrouded from the human eye.

But the more I watch them, the more I see humans reflected in their behaviors and the more I see owls reflected in humans. We are all so connected.

The friends we make in the wild world

I haven't seen my owlets in nearly two weeks. They grew up fast, as I knew they would. When I first encountered them, they could barely fly. Within 3 weeks, they were expert aviators. When I first met them, they would let me stand a few hundred feet away and take pictures and videos of them with my zoom lens. Within 3 weeks, the moment they heard me coming, they would fly away. I could barely catch a glimpse of them.

I knew they would be gone by the end of the summer, looking for their own territory. But I thought I had at least a month before they went off on their own.

But the last several times I've gone out to look for them, there has been no sign of them. I see feathers here and there that have been lying around for a while - nothing new, nothing fresh.

I listen so carefully, trying to hear their call, but nothing comes. I hear the magpies and the hawks, but no baby owls. Every now and then, I think I hear them…but when I stop to focus, the sound does not recur.

I have to admit, I really miss them. Watching them has been one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. What a privilege to get a chance to watch three baby owls grow into maturity.

Copyright: C. Martin, 2017, used with permission

Copyright: C. Martin, 2017, used with permission

In a way, they became my friends. I looked for them every Friday and Saturday evening. When you're owling, you have to slow down. You have to listen. The very act of walking so incredibly slowly, of looking into every tree for some clue of their whereabouts, was incredibly relaxing. It helped me manage the stress I've been struggling with at work. It helped me feel connected to a broader, wilder world than the one I currently inhabit.

Without little Lyra, Sirirus, and Vesper, I feel a little bit lost. Suddenly, the world feels so much emptier.

On Monday night, I walked the woods for over an hour, looking for them in the fading light. I began crying, feeling so hopeless that I will see their beautiful yellow eyes again. Was the last time the last time?

My sobbing startled a buck that had been eating grass several feet away. I didn't see him until he spooked and ran away. At the time, I was standing next to the bones of another buck who had died in November 2015, back when my own life was heading deep into the underworld.

The buck gave me some hope. He was young, his antlers velvety. Maybe another sign that my life is finally and fully emerging from that dark, deathly place it was in for so long. One buck left this world, and another has come into it, just beginning his life.

It gave me a little hope, even as I knew I had to face the fact that I might not see my little ones ever again.

I stayed at the farm on Tuesday night - something I don't normally do on a work night. I woke up just before my alarm went off, at 4:30AM. I laid there, staring at the ceiling, waiting for my alarm to go off at 5. Ten minutes later, I heard hooting.

I knew it was the mother or father owl sitting on the tree just outside the window, as they had done so often just before the babies were born. I couldn't believe it. After almost two weeks, one of them returned! Not one of my babies, but still…it was reassuring to hear one of the adults.

I went on with my day feeling much better, much more hopeful. Maybe I'll see them again. Or maybe the mother owl came to tell me that they were all moved out and happy in their new territories.

At work, a co-worker gave me a birthday present - a pair of owl-shaped earrings. It felt like the owls speaking to me, again, reassuring me.

I don't know if I'll see the little ones again. They might be gone forever, now. But I am grateful for the time I was able to spend with them. And I hope that the parents - or at least one of them - will stay on at the farm, letting me visit from time to time.

It is just good to know that we have friends out there, somewhere in the wild world, who touched our lives. And maybe we touched theirs, too.