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.

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Nature, Preserving Itself

Well, five years have gone by and a few more inches of aluminum have been ingested by this old oak tree, living its life in super-slow motion (or, maybe we’re living too fast).

Being in a nature preserve, I imagine this tree will live and die right where it stands. But should this oak ever make its way to a lumber mill, the saw operator is in for a big surprise.

I’ll visit again in 2023. Stay tuned.

Acme Little Giant Do-It-Yourself Rocket-Sled Kit

rr still

Each time I travel the desert roads of Texas and New Mexico, I manage to catch at least one glimpse of a roadrunner. Usually, they just zip straight across the road directly in front of me, and by the time I reach for a camera, they’re long gone. I’ve never come close to capturing one on film (or the digital equivalent).

That changed on my most recent visit to the Davis Mountains. I had activated my phone’s video camera to record a scenic stretch of road. Almost immediately, a roadrunner joined the party. You’ll see it enter the road from the grass on the right, zigzag up my lane, cross the centerline, then run up the left edge of the pavement. As I pass, it hops into the grass and flies away. Far from a spectacular piece of cinema, but I’m happy that I finally got a lens on one of these beasts.

This short video has been slowed to just 20% of its original speed and there is no audio track. You’ll have an easier time seeing the bird if you play the video in full-screen mode (the icon in the lower-right corner of the video window).

Click HERE to view the video on my Vimeo channel.

Runtime: 55 seconds

 

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.