The Sleepy Owl

One sunny morning, many years ago, I was rolling westward along US 12 in Broadwater County, Montana on the section of the highway that passes through the Helena National Forest. Suddenly, in the opposite lane, I saw what appeared to be a large bird sitting in the road. As I slowed beside it, I realized that it was an owl…

I’m a big fan of leaving wild animals alone to do what they do, but when it comes to animals in the road, I can’t help but take action. I always stop (safely) when I see a turtle on the pavement; sometimes I’ll just sit in the car with my flashers on until it has completed its journey, other times I’ll carry the turtle to its destination on the far shoulder.

This owl was in the eastbound lane of the highway at the end of a fairly tight curve, and as the morning sun would have been in the eyes of those driving in that lane, chances were high that it would have been crushed by the next vehicle to come along. So, on went the flashers and I pulled halfway onto the eastbound shoulder to block the owl from approaching traffic, then I got out of the car for a closer look.

Naturally, I’m wondering, What is this owl doing in the middle of the road? It appeared to be sleeping. If so, it could have found a better location!

Perhaps it was sunbathing. Whenever I drive rural roads in the morning, I frequently see birds sitting on the pavement to get warm, since asphalt retains heat quite well. But they always fly away when a vehicle approaches.

Perhaps this owl was sick. If so, I wouldn’t know.

Perhaps it had been stunned in a collision. That was my best theory at the time, although I didn’t notice any blood, any missing feathers or any body parts out of place.

Really, it just appeared to be…sleeping. Content, relaxed and in charge. This is my road, I’m taking a nap, deal with it.

My attempts to rouse this beast by shouting and clapping failed miserably; the only response I got was one slight turn of the head. Though the eyes never opened, at least I knew someone was in there. I then grabbed a branch from a nearby shrub and gently tapped the bird on the back several times. Nothing.

No cooperation forthcoming, I went to the trunk and grabbed my leather work gloves and a towel. Approaching the bird from behind, I gently covered it with the towel, lifted it carefully and carried it through the tall bushes on the south side of the road. There, beside a small stream, I set it down in a patch of sunlit grass…

Fortunately, due either to the remote location, the time of day or the day of the week, no vehicle traffic appeared during this encounter (had there been any, I wouldn’t have held things up by taking pictures).

Using field guides, I was never able to positively ID this owl. Looking at the photos now, many of its feathers remind me of those on juvenile raptors. Working with that assumption, and considering the bird’s size (somewhat larger than an NFL football) and the curved black beak, and after scanning through internet images of juvenile owls, my best guess is that this was a young great horned owl (Bubo virginianus). (This ID was verified by the folks at Montana’s Owl Research Institute. Thank you!)

Had I access to a smartphone at the time, I would have tried to contact a local bird rescue operation. But this was years before I owned a cell phone, and I have to wonder if you could get a signal even now in that remote area.

I hope this owl lived to fly another day.

The Night Has Eyes

…and ears and wings and talons. Owl sightings are always special to me as they are so infrequent, and it’s rarer still that I can catch an owl on camera. When I saw the silhouette of this beautiful creature along a lonely road just after sunset, I parked the Pontiac immediately and walked slowly toward the brush, firing off a frame every few seconds. This was as near as I could get before the owl disappeared silently into the fading light.

One last image from the archive before I hit the road this week. I’ve packed 25 rolls of film for this trip…hope that will be enough. And I’ll certainly keep an eye out for owls along the way.

Western Texas
December 1994
Kodak Tri-X film

Raptor’s Delight

As Thursday was going to be another beautiful (and rather warm) October day in the Davis Mountains of western Texas, I made a point to be up and out the door at first light to enjoy a few hours of leisurely motoring before breakfast. As I rolled out of Fort Davis, I watched a glorious sunrise paint the sky and the desert floor. I then turned west, into the hills.

After several miles of peaceful riding, I was presented with the option to turn left on Ranch Road 505. This narrow strip of asphalt is just 8.8 miles long, connecting Texas 166 with U.S. 90. It has no shoulder and, happily, little to no traffic…

I took the turn and drove on, enjoying the fact that I was the only driver on the road that morning. But I wasn’t truly alone; a crowd had gathered, and that crowd made the scenery even more compelling. Once I reached U.S. 90, I made a U-turn and parked the car so I could attach my 80-200mm zoom. As I began to retrace my route, I knew that I was about to fire off a few hundred shots with the Nikon…

Birds. Big birds. And lots of them. Hawks of many different shapes, sizes and colors, lining the 505. It looked like a raptor convention. Most of them were perched on fence posts; some on metal posts…

Some on old wooden posts…

We fell into a groove; each bird I stopped beside would pose for about five seconds after my arrival, giving me the stink eye while I grabbed a few frames…

And then leap into to air, having seen enough of me…

I would then roll forward a hundred yards or so to greet the next contestant, and the pattern would repeat…

A few of the hawks had found a vantage point superior to that of a fence post; the tall mast of the Yucca elata makes an excellent perch…

And a hawk leaping into the air does a nice job of dispersing the yucca seeds…

Incidentally, that gray blob you see in two of the above images…it’s not a speck of dust on the camera’s sensor. It is a tethered blimp, near the city of Marfa; part of the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, which scans the border for low-flying aircraft…

But enough about the blimp; I was much more interested in the things flying closer to the ground…

Aside from the raptors, there were other creatures out and about that morning, such as this fine fat vulture…

And these bold little sparrows, basking in the sun. (Bold? Maybe just oblivious, or, perhaps, unappetizing…)

Even some four-legged Pontiac fans came down to the fence to say hello…

So, if you ever find yourself about to turn onto Ranch Road 505, be sure to have your camera at the ready. The fish are waiting in the barrel.