Saw Whet Owl courtesy of David Mitchell on Flickr
I’m surprised I don’t have neck cramps more regularly, and that I don’t fall over more often. I spend a lot of time looking up when I walk, and this time of year there is a lot to see. Yes, most trees are bare, and, yes, a fair number of birds have migrated, but the bare trees also mean that there is a chance to see what’s obstructed by foliage for at least half of the year. There are some gorgeous wasp nests and dreys, to start with, even if you never see a bird. But, of course, you will see birds, seemingly oblivious to the cold and going about their day-to-day lives finding food and exploring and preening and seemingly undertaking great acrobatics to avoid our binoculars. While you wait for the birds, let the squirrels entertain you.
I have been obsessed with the idea of spotting an owl in a tree for quite some time now. I even wrote to the Facebook group I am in, Connecticut Birds, and was advised to try going out in the evening. Ah hah! I am a morning walker 98% of the time, which may explain the complete lack of owls spotted during my excursions. Apparently they are noisier at night, which now that I think that through is a fact probably obvious to any second grader. Still, I know that owls sleep in trees during the day. I know that they have been known to perch in tree hollows. Every dark hole in every tree is a target for my binocs. Where are they all hiding?
It may be Central Park in the Dark that started this obsession for me. Marie Winn describes coming upon a sleeping Saw Whet owl roosting in the Shakespeare Garden. The first sighting is no easy task. She writes:
You can scan a tree with your finest binoculars and swear there’s no owl there. Only if you know an owl’s in a certain tree…will you continue the excruciatingly careful, inch-by- inch examination necessary to know that a certain bump on a branch is actually a perfectly camouflaged sleeping saw-whet.
But, even knowing that patience and luck and perhaps some insider trading of owl intelligence is required for such an achievement, I became absolutely jealous when I read Mary Oliver’s piece “Owls” in her profoundly inspiring collection of essays, Upstream. First of all, I am jealous of Oliver’s writing prowess! Take this swoon-worthy prose:
And I search in the deeper woods, past fire roads and the bike trail, among the black oaks and the taller pines, in the silent blue afternoons, when the sand is still frozen and the snow falls slowly and aimlessly, and the whole world smells like water in an iron cup.
It only gets better after this sentence, but best to just buy the book so you can swoon, too. When I read it, part of me wants to give up on writing altogether, and my better half wants to pick up Oliver’s torch and write better, write more. These two sides continue to war.
I’m not only jealous of Oliver’s writing. I am jealous of the content of this particular essay. This statement, for example: “I have seen plenty of owls.” A bit later: “I have seen them in every part of the woods.” Still later: “But the owls themselves are not hard to find…” If I didn’t know that Oliver is a kind soul I would think she was mocking me personally.
Maybe I need an apple tree. Gavin gave me The Birds of John Burroughs for Christmas, and he writes about a “little red owl” in an apple tree, its presence made apparent to him by jays and nuthatches who loudly proclaimed their wish to see it gone. He writes, “After accustoming my eye to the faint light of the cavity for a few moments, I could usually make out the owl at the bottom, feigning sleep.” He knew the sleep was feigned because on one occasion when he had to cut into the tree, the bird continued to “sleep” until Burroughs physically pulled it out of its spot! Then it freaked out and became quite menacing. Tricky beasts, these owls.
Much of time in nature is, for me, time in faith. Faith that I will learn something. Faith that I may encounter a surprise. Faith in quietude and in cycles and in the mundane noises. Faith that I will return to this spot again, and also find new spots. Faith that goes deeper than just the trail and the wild itself; the kind of faith that Emily Dickinson described so famously and well
Yes, Emily, we are cut from the same cloth, in that we both believe that “instead of getting to Heaven, at last”, we are “going all along.” In many ways, my walking shoes are my pearly gates.
Wishing you the deep faith of looking for owls, and the peace that comes with the path. (Photos here courtesy of luckier walkers with better cameras and Flickr, until I can supply my own firsthand owl snapshots).