The Curious Owl

This is a story about those gifts that just fall into your lap every now and then. As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t had nearly enough owl encounters for my taste. Since these sightings are so rare, I treasure each one and I recall the experiences quite clearly. Back in October, I was lucky enough to add two more to the list.

The first occurred on a hot and sunny day in a tiny prairie town in southwestern Kansas. I had stopped beneath a big shady tree in the town’s park just to give myself and the car a short rest. While reaching for my water bottle, my eye caught a sudden movement in the rearview mirror. A very large bird had leapt from a tree branch and was heading my way. I turned my face toward the sky as it zoomed directly above the Pontiac at low altitude and landed in another tree up ahead. One of the most impressive things about owls is how deadly silent they are in flight, even when they are skimming just above your head. This was a big beast…probably a great horned owl. Sorry, no photos of this event.

Jump ahead about two weeks to another sunny day in South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grassland. I had dedicated the entire day to exploring some dusty roads east of the Black Hills. After parking at a remote intersection to enjoy a snack and the view and the silence, I heard a high-pitched barking noise directly behind me. Prairie dog? I turned to look past the trunk and spotted an adorable bird standing near the cattle guard, bobbing its head down and up with each squawk. A burrowing owl! My first such sighting, and a nice surprise.

Having never met Athene cunicularia before, I had no idea how bold or shy these birds could be. I certainly wanted to get some photos of this meeting, but I didn’t want to lose valuable seconds assembling the camera. So, I used the phone first to get some video; would’ve been disappointed had I missed the chance to record that voice. I slid out of the car carefully and was encouraged when the owl held its ground. After a few more barks, it jumped up and flew a tight circle around the Pontiac, just to return to the starting point and resume its barking and dancing.

You can watch that lap via this link to my Vimeo account. (Video duration is 58 seconds. You may want to boost your speaker volume to hear the owl’s call.)

As this owl evidently had no plans to leave soon, I then grabbed the DSLR and the big lens. The owl took another lap around the car, this time landing on an assortment of fence posts along the way. Certainly not a camera-shy creature; it seemed to be deliberately perching in great spots and posing like a pro. I’ve never had a more cooperative wild subject.

Perhaps this owl was curious about the Pontiac. Perhaps it wanted to be immortalized on the internet. More than likely, it was just annoyed; I think it wanted me to leave its nesting area. So I did. Thanks for the photos, little bird.

Roasted

Hot, hot, hot and windy today while I was rolling through Missouri and Kansas, but a fun drive nonetheless. Saw four river otters run across the road, and one wild turkey.

Temperature will be plunging by more than thirty degrees tomorrow.

Self-Portrait

I must pack my short life full of interesting events and creative activity. Philosophy and aesthetic contemplation are not enough. I intend to do everything possible to broaden my experiences and allow myself to reach the fullest development. Then, and before physical deterioration obtrudes, I shall go on some last wilderness trip, to a place I have known and loved. I shall not return.

~Everett Ruess, letter dated May 2, 1931

 

Do It Again

Christmas Day, 1994. This is the photo that started it all. Over the next several years and several thousand miles, I would accumulate 53 such pictures…48 states, the District of Columbia and four Canadian provinces (I’ve been to a fifth province, but was unable to find an “Ontario” sign). Years later, for reasons unknown, I had grown to loathe photographs of this car with the top in the up position. It just didn’t look right to me. I realized that, going forward, I didn’t want to shoot another photo of the Pontiac unless the top was down. And I decided to replace the existing inferior images with some new top-down shots.

Looking over the collection, it was clear that I would need several years to accomplish this overhaul; of the 53 original photos, 40 would need to be redone. In those 40 scenes, the top was up due to rain, snow, bitter cold, oppressive heat or simply due to the fact that, back then, I didn’t care. A lot of miles will have to be covered in order to get the pictures I want, but I’m certainly not complaining…I’m happy with any excuse to tour the continent yet again. During October’s long journey, I was able to cross seven more states off of the reshoot list. Let’s start with Texas…

tx1

This border crossing has changed a little over the last 21 years…the old buildings in the distance have been razed, a rusty trash barrel has been placed in front of the stone Texas monument (considering the large amount of garbage on the side of the road, it appears that no one is actually using the barrel), the New Mexico portion of the highway has been widened to four lanes, vehicle traffic has increased substantially (oil service trucks heading down the ranch roads) and, sadly, this cool vintage right-of-way marker has been removed. On the day I arrived, a trucker decided to use this spot to park and take a nap. I wasn’t too keen on the revised scenery, so, for my updated Texas photo, I opted for a different arrangement…

TX

One thing that all of the old photos have in common is that they were shot in front of state line signs. It was during the first of the reshoots that I realized there was a better solution: small-town post offices. Shooting at the state line was usually problematic. Border signs are rarely posted along minor roads; they’re reserved for highways. In addition to the hazard of the increased traffic on these highways, it was often difficult to park near the signs due to the presence of guardrails, bridges, ditches or simply due to the complete absence of a shoulder, meaning that some percentage of my vehicle was parked on or near the travel lane. At the post office, however, parking is usually a breeze, especially after hours, and the town and state names are both identified. Plus, each state has many cool post offices to choose from…

Tie Siding, Wyoming…

WY

Pep, New Mexico…

NM

Kenton, Oklahoma…

OK

Manter, Kansas…

KS

Salisbury, Missouri…

MO

In Colorado, I was enjoying a Sunday drive through scenic Pleasant Valley with my friend Sarah when we spied this tiny post office across the street from a wayward cow. All of my state photos up to this point (with the exception of New York) have been self-portraits. But on this day, I had an excellent photographer riding in my passenger seat…

co2

So I asked Sarah to take my official Colorado portrait…

CO

Many states and provinces remain on the reshoot list. And, I’m eager for my very first look at Alaska, the Yukon and all of eastern Canada. One step at a time.

You can view the whole collection via this link to an album in my Google Photos account.