A Tale of Four Owls

Above, a Short-eared Owl enjoys the late afternoon sun beside a highway.

A few months ago a tall young man on a bicycle rode toward me on a path near the sea. His hair was closely cropped, his clothes were worn, and he was carrying a large rucksack on his back. He stopped in front of me, eyeing my camera.

“Are you photographing birds?” he asked.

“Trying to,” I said, shifting on my feet.

“Cool!” His face lit up. He asked me if I had heard of a nearby patch of woodland, and when I said “no,” he described the place with great enthusiasm, telling me of the berries that grew in abundance there, how delicious they were, and how beautifully the late afternoon light raked through the trees.

“There’s an owl that lives there,” he said. “I’m a photographer, too. I always have my gear with me.” He reached behind himself, patting the lumpy rucksack. “I’ve gotten some nice pictures of that owl. You might want to check it out.”

“Thanks!” I said. “That sounds great. How do I get there?”

He gave me directions, and as he rode off he said, “It’s the kind of place you go back to again and again.”

I have now been to the place three times, and have yet to get any photographs there that I’m completely happy with. But in every visit, I have seen an owl and captured an image of it. The funny thing is, that each time it’s been a different owl!

The first was this Barred Owl:

It’s not the greatest picture. Hoping to do better, I returned some time later to look for this bird again.

It was nowhere in sight. But after a long search I stumbled upon something quite unexpected—a Barn Owl sleeping high up in a tree:

Again—not the greatest photograph, but I like it nevertheless.

On the third trip to this woodland I drove past a Short-eared Owl sitting on a clod of mud and sticks next to the road. I turned around at nearest opportunity, lowered the window, and eased the car abreast of the owl.

There was no place to pull over.

Luckily, there was no traffic, either. Leaving the car running, I switched on the hazard lights, and clicked away:

I resumed the journey, wondering if my luck would continue. A few minutes later I was walking into the forest, adjusting the camera settings for the dim light beneath the trees.

A couple of Varied Thrushes flew up into the lower branches, glowing briefly in the low sun rays slanting under the dense canopy. They vanished, and the trees stood quietly, keeping secrets.

The deep hoots of a pair of Great Horned Owls rang out in the silence. I moved toward the source of the calls, finding another photographer who had already located the big owls.

Neither of us could get a clear view of the two owls hidden in the thick vegetation. But I took some shots anyway. After a while, one of the Great Horned Owls flew off and we followed it.

We found it perched near another trail:

The other guy didn’t even touch his camera—it was so dark at that point, and the bird was still obscured by foliage—albeit far less than before.

But I had to try. The photo was snapped hand held at 1/20 of a second (image stabilization worked its magic). It’s very noisy, but again, I like it. I like the way the light catches the owl’s eye as it looks back at the viewer, and how the bird appears to be a part of the trees—or even their animated presence.

As for the other owls in that patch, who knows? Great Horned Owls are fierce predators who are known to kill or drive away all other owls. While walking back to the trailhead in the twilight, I glimpsed what appeared to be another, smaller owl in a sapling growing in a meadow. I headed that way, momentarily losing sight of the apparition while using some brush for cover.

When I got there it was gone.

Behind me, the Great Horned Owls hooted from the darkened trees. Only the moon, watching from high in the cold sky, saw what happened.


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