It is 4 p.m. The work of the day is done. Dinner soup is simmering on the stove, and the restlessness of a day without a good walk overcomes me. The sun is disappearing as each minute passes, and I know that I will need to rush to catch the last weak light of a winter afternoon. These are not the planned outings; these are the sudden disappearances that have me tossing on a heavy jacket, and tossing off a few words to my family, “I’ll be back by dinner.” I am out the door and into the woods, heading for the creek.
I run into a friend, a fine athlete, who never misses her run. She asks me what I expect to see when it is so cold and dark. I answer, “maybe nothing, but you never know, some deer at least, maybe even an owl.”
The trail is almost empty. Except for the sharp chirp of a cardinal, or a brief scold from a Carolina wren, there is very little sound.
I fear I may have jinxed my trip by telling my friend that I might find an owl, but this is their hour, so I walk on in the cold regretting that I didn’t bother to bring my gloves. The single-track trail is empty, so I turn onto the main path, searching every bare limb for an owl that is ready to commence its evening hunt.
Walking past the open field that used to hold a community garden, I search the trees, and there, on a bare branch is the owl.
So high up, not an easy shot, and the light is wrong. I enter the field to make a wide circle trying not to disturb the owl, but finding my way to better light. The owl sits motionless, his feathers ruffling in the icy wind. There, in the center of the bare tree, he looks like nothing more than a clump of dried leaves that have refused to budge for winter.
My circling has bothered the owl, and he flies off towards the thick woods. His flight takes him not in the direction of the easy pines that have open space between them, but into the rough brambles and cat briar. How does he manage to navigate in that impossible tangle?
I follow, knowing that the owl will not fly far. Most times the owls don’t seem to mind my presence once they see me the second time around. Perhaps the openness of the field was too exposed, but when I locate the owl a second time, he merely glances at me, and holds his post. Fairly high up again, and turned away from me.
I circle yet again. I stop. I don’t want to rustle around too much. Take your time, let the owl get used to you.
Of course, time is what I don’t have. Each minute the woods are growing darker, and colder. Then I catch sight of the owl directly above me. He swoops past, and I think he is gone; I have been too loud and fumbling in the dry leaves.
No, there he is, right before me sitting on the ground. Why has he not left? They say that if an owl watches you half the time, you are causing it stress, and should back away. This owl is completely ignoring me. I stand and stand, waiting for the owl to look my way, but the owl has his eyes fixed to the leaf litter. He marches around a bit, very upright, walking like a small soldier. There is some prey in the litter that has prompted the owl to ignore me, and land on the ground. Such concentration and patience!
He waits for minutes, and I wait motionless with my camera fixed on the owl. Finally, the wings spread out like a menacing cape, and the owl pounces. Whatever he catches makes a crunching sound, and has long legs, an insect of some sort. I see a few brief gulps, and long antennae hanging to the side of the owl’s beak.
He stares at me once, a long appraising stare, and then flies up to a close low branch, barely four feet off the ground. We have established our positions. It amazes me that once a barred owl has commenced hunting, a person can remain quiet and observe the entire process, without causing any disturbance to the owl.
Time however, favors the owl. The darkness is closing in so quickly that my camera struggles to keep up, and I change settings almost every five minutes.
The owl fluffs himself against the cold, and ignores me. Oh, these barred owls are bold creatures. In the west, the barred owls are overtaking the territory of the highly endangered spotted owls. Hybrid crosses of the two species are appearing, and it has caused alarm for all the ornithologists who are hoping to save the spotted owl from extinction.
A barred owl is adaptable to change, and fierce in its advance. By now, I am merely some object in the woods to be ignored. As the last usable light disappears, I see the soft browns of the owl washed in the blue light of dusk. The owl shuts his eyes, and turns his head upward. Snubbed, unworthy of any fearful attention, the owl will ignore me and keep his post, until some fragment of sound, completely beyond the range of human hearing, draws him again to the ground. It is winter on Bolin Creek, and we know whose woods these are.
Without gloves, and alas, without flashlight, I stumble along until I reach the main trail. From there it is a fast, head-down trek the rest of the way home. It has always delighted me that in winter, when the trees are leafless, I can make out the lights of our house from the last stretch of woods. Acres ahead, I see the lights of our kitchen. It is a welcoming beacon. Whose house this is I think I know.
Mary Paker Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at email@example.com