Screech owls don't screech. (There seems to be a great tradition of naming birds seemingly just to make identification as counterintuitive as possible.) Screech owls in fact make a whinnying sound like a ghost horse. We went from one dark, quiet place no human has any business being in during the predawn hours to another and another, until the sun came up. The true cold descended just before dawn. I checked later, and it turned out that the "feels like" temperature -- taking wind chill and all that into account -- was minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 21 degrees Celsius.
Okay, sorry, but that's not birding any more. It's some kind of lunacy. Thing is, I discovered it's one of the most fun things I can imagine doing. The quietness and clarity. The surrealness of being out of step with ordinary life, like that feeling you get when you have to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night -- you're not tucked up in bed like everyone else but have stepped away into some other time and space. The world looks so different at that hour: Later that day we went through the same fields and wooded areas, and I had the jarring sensation that the predawn visit was a dream. Time got bent out of shape, and it seemed that we had done that days or weeks before, or in another lifetime. Those little owls were no longer active, and instead we counted comforting daytime birds -- geese, ducks, gulls, robins, sparrows, bluebirds.
Perhaps the most beautiful bird of the day was the Snow Bunting . . . at the dump. Birders don't get distracted by ugly or hostile environments. It's all about the birds. I love that level of focus. But I don't have it. I tend to get distracted and suddenly realize I've wandered away from the group, looking at trees or streams or clouds -- or in the case of the dump, a deer skeleton and the fur it left behind, melting into the ground in a rough deer shape. In a desolate cabbage farm -- the farmers had failed to harvest, and their vegetables were snap frozen in the ground -- there were frozen puddles in tire tracks that looked almost like fossils.