Bird Encounters, Part I – July 11, 2016

After a weekend of rain and storms, the summer sun returns and I’m enjoying a glass of wine on the deck. Toward sunset, as the boys gnaw on bones in the yard, there’s a scuffle between the tree swallows nesting in the box on the fence and a larger bird. Shielding my eyes against the sun, I see a brownish bird resting on the fence railing, fluffing its feathers; I’m not sure what it is but it’s definitely larger than a swallow. Conall also notices it, and meanders over to investigate, causing the bird to fly off. It glides low from the railing, skimming the tops of the tall field grass fronds before gaining enough altitude down slope to land on the peak of my neighbor’s garage roof.

birds on fence
Tree swallows hanging out near their nesting box on the wire and post dog yard fence.

Half an hour later, just before sunset as I’m bringing things inside, the boys become intensely interested in something just beyond the fence, in the field grass on the downhill side. They really want to get whatever it is. I wander over to look, thinking maybe a neighborhood cat is hunting mice, but I can’t see anything. I do, though, hear a faint rustling in the grass less than a foot beyond the fence. The boys hear it, too, and push their heads through the squares in the fence wire in an effort to get it. Unable to see what’s hiding in the grass, I grab the shovel I use to fling dog shit over the fence into the field every day, hoping to prod and convince whatever creature is there to move along so the boys will calm down.

field, grass, sunset
Field grass just beyond the fence at sunset.

As I’m poking gently into the field grass, Conall suddenly sticks his head through the wire and quickly tucks it back in again. He dashes into the yard with something in his mouth, his tail wagging slowly, a look on his face that says, “I got it!” It’s the same body language he displays when he’s caught a vole and wants me to know so I’ll praise him. But it’s not a vole, it’s a bird!

“Drop it,” I say to Conall, and he does. It’s the same fairly large brown-speckled bird that had been sitting on the fence earlier. Spreading its wings in a threatening posture even as it’s lying on its back on the lawn, Conall is intrigued and a bit spooked by it. When I tell him “Leave it,” he does, but I grab his collar to make sure. I worry he may have already injured the bird.

Within seconds the bird stands upright, wings still outright, feathers a bit damp from Conall’s mouth. It has the biggest, most amazing yellow eyes I’ve ever seen, staring at me, imploring me to help it survive.

An owlet.

The eyes tell me it’s an owl, a fledgling, an owlet.

Conall wants to investigate more closely but no way am I going to let go of him. I wrestle Conall inside the house. Finn follows us willingly, uninterested in the bird, most likely because it isn’t running away, triggering his prey drive.

Boys secure in the house, I return to the yard, camera in hand, but the owlet is gone.

I’m glad Conall has a soft mouth, allowing it to survive its close encounter with him. If Finn had gotten to that owl first, it would be dead. I’m sad I didn’t get a photo, but I’m happy owlet was able to hop or fly away, having survived what may have well been its first day of flying from the nest.

“You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights! You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.”

Dr. Seuss

I hope baby owl survived the day having learned valuable lessons, including to avoid sparrows and Malamutes.

In 2012, Finn and I were walking through the forest near home one June morning. Suddenly, first one enormous owl, and then a second, swooped silently across the dirt road we were on, right in front of us, flying down slope through the trees. I stopped and stared – great horned owls in flight! The tufts on their heads – their horns – were clearly visible. I had never seen such a sight before. I was amazed that with their enormous wing spans – between three and five feet – they could navigate so easily through the trees.

Composite photo of great horned owl in flight by Art Siegel, CC-BY 2.0.

A couple years later, walking with Finn in the same section of forest, another owl – a great horned, but smaller than the ones I’d seen in flight in 2012 – followed us. Finn and I were on a single-track trail through the trees. I sensed movement and turned to see an owl fly from behind us, pass us, and land on a tree branch right beside the trail several feet ahead of us. As a runner, I know that owls, and crows, will sometimes dive and hit the backs of peoples heads if they have a nest and fledglings they’re protecting nearby. With that in mind, I continued walking slowly, phone camera in hand hoping for photos while keeping a wary eye on the owl. I didn’t want to lose a piece of my scalp to its talons.

The owl watched us pass under its perch in the tree, turning its head to follow us. I was thrilled to see it so close, so calm. Once we passed by, the owl took flight again, swooping over us from behind before alighting again on another tree beside the trail. I took another photo as it watched me, then kept walking. A third time the owl took flight, swooped over us and landed ahead, where it could watch us approach. This time, it let us pass without further interest.

The owl’s behavior was puzzling to me, as was its size relative to the two owls I’d seen flying through the trees a couple summers earlier. Reading about great horned owls, I learned that in the Rockies they lay eggs in March or April. When nestlings are six to seven weeks old, they start flying. They become competent fliers by 12 weeks. By then, they look similar to adults, having lost their downy baby feathers. A typical lifespan for great horned owls is 13 years. This particular owl may have been a curious “teenager” with some size to add to his frame, learning about the other inhabitants of his world – including people and dogs – by following me and Finn, getting a close look to satisfy its curiosity.

When I first moved here in 2005, I heard the hooting of great horned owls most nights that my windows were open. I haven’t heard or seen one in some time, and that worries me.

As consolation to Conall’s owlet for its embarrassing early foray into the big world, another fledgling, much smaller, had a similar experience two years later. That story will be tomorrow’s post.

Feature photo: a great horned owlet, by Victoria Rigby, Pexels.

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