Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Owl Staring and Trickle Gazing

All winter long there have been a couple owls down in the woods behind the house... having a real hoot of it.  Nearly every night, as I sat warming in front of the fire with a book or trolling the internet for the latest Harlem Shake video, I could hear them hooting away out there.  I enjoyed listening to their duets, most especially while staring up at the stars sometimes from the driveway, contemplating the mysteries of the universe (read: where the hell did I put my gloves?), but I know about as much about owl calls as I do the Krebs cycle.  Cells metabolize, owls hoot -- the depth of my knowledge on both subjects.

I didn't know if they were a mating pair, what type of owls they were, or what they were really up to other than gabbing quite a bit.  That was until I was out in the yard picking up sticks early a few days ago.  OK, I was peeing on a tree, but I was thinking about picking up all the sticks and limbs revealed by melting snow.

A movement in my periphery caught my attention, and I looked up expecting to see a hawk.  The elegant lines and grace of the numerous red tails that seem to have taken over the skies recently were nowhere to be found.  I was rather startled to be confronted instead with the stocky, barrel-chested form of a downy fledgling owl perched on a limb not forty yards away.  That's not a thing I see everyday, and it took me a few beats to whir through the mental Rolodex to the owl section, having just been preoccupied with aiming and contemplating landscape cellulose removal.

I'd never seen a fledgling owl before, still in the down.  This guy (or gal) had a vaguely comical look about him.  Some of the sagacity and noble bearing of an adult top line predator, but concealed behind a coat of comfy looking fluff and marabou.  Like a kid bundled up to head out for a mid-winter recess.  And I don't think he had his sea legs quite yet.  As I gazed on for a minute or more, a chilly wind tossing bare oak and basswood limbs around, there seemed to be more than the normal amount of flapping and stumbling about in his efforts to get settled in on his perch.

I jogged into the house to retrieve binoculars, and returned to my owl watching post a few steps into the woods.  Our fluffy beige friend did turn to glance at me once upon my hasty return to the woods, but he didn't seem too concerned.  He was concentrating fairly hard on not tipping over in the breeze as far as I could tell, and I was having a fine time watching him.

Then I caught another movement farther back in the tree tops -- a hint of something at the edge of my limited field of view against the gunmetal sky.  Almost unconsciously, my finger went to the knob, and ran the focus back into the woods.

That was when I was suddenly confronted with the level glare of an adult Great Horned Owl, our eyes locked on each other from seemingly feet away through the binoculars.  He sat immobile now and unblinking, those huge primal eyes boring into mine.  Watching me watching his progeny.  While I try to avoid the crutch of personification when it comes to viewing wildlife, there was a moment there when I almost felt him warning me off, hunter to hunter.  And a chill ran down my spine.

Soon enough the pair flew off, deeper into the woods, and I was left looking at empty limbs swaying in the cold morning air, simply glad to have been a part of our morning encounter.

There's a certain danger that exists for some of us who spend a lot of time outdoors chasing prey and yummy green stuff growing in the shade.  Not only can we very easily lose sight of the big picture in the woods, staring at rising fish or deer walking the wrong way until tunnel vision sets in, but I think we can also skirt the danger of becoming immune to the little things.

I remind myself all the time to remember the joy in the little stuff out there.  If I didn't, this blog entry would consist entirely of 5 words - "I saw a couple owls."  That's all that really happened.  I was out to stretch my legs and relieve my bladder, and I saw a couple owls.  It would be easy for a lot of us outdoorsy folks to become so enamored of the big vistas and moments, completely engaged by a singular goal to catch or kill something, that we forget to stop and smell the Crocuses.  Which specifically, by the way, isn't really worth it.  They're really short.  Your hands and knees get all muddy getting all the way down there, and they don't smell that great.

Spring is the easiest time to take in the beauty of the little things.  For so long everything, big and small, has been dormant under snow and ice.  I love winter.  The cold, the snow, the howling wind... bring it on.  But when the last of the snow is shrinking under the spruces and all is coming alive, every little blossom and rill is a wonder. 

Like many of us who stand in rivers waving sticks, I am enchanted by moving water.  No matter how large or small I always feel the pull to stop and stare.  Springtime is the greatest time of year for staring at moving water, especially considering the April we've had around here, where we're just now seeing the sun past a forest of remembered flood watches and warnings in the distance.  If the old adage holds true, we'll be up to our ears in May flowers very soon.

Perhaps it has to do with a childhood spent "racing boats" down small streams, but I am an inveterate, committed little rivulet starer.  I pause to admire water running every chance I get.  Running down the gutters into a storm drain or out of the gutters into the grass, it matters not.  I love to stop and take in the miniature tinkle and splash.  It has been the Super Bowl of tiny stream staring in the woods behind the house this month with daily rains and mountains of snow melting fast.  All rushing steeply down to the creek that borders the property.

Add to that a mountain of ice and snow I had to hack through to get the growing driveway pond to drain before it flowed into the garage.  A few hours spent toiling with pick and spud bar where well worth it in the end, when I was finally able to stand back and enjoy the mother of all deeply gratifying man-made tiny streams running off into the woods through the snowbank.

To an unknowing observer, I might often be deemed "a tad off" standing in the rain with my hands in my pockets, kicking little twigs and leaves into flowing water, just to see which way they'll go, how far they make it before they get hung up.  It's the little things.

And I'm fine with that.  Trickle gazing and being judged slightly touched are two of my favorite pastimes.

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