Sunday, January 30, 2011

A good day at Hammonassett

My upbringing was all brightly colored, screeching subtropical parrots, and it seemed as likely that I would make a trip to the moon as see an auk with my two eyes. But we had a rare treat in Connecticut this morning -- the first sighting in the state of a Common Murre, at Hammonasset State Park. This photo won't be winning any awards, but you get the idea -- a miniature floating football with a beak.

Common Murre at Hammonasset, Connecticut, 01/30/11

Every time I see a rarity I'm surprised all over again by how the bird always appears unfazed by the fact it has landed in the wrong place at the wrong time. This murre looked so nonchalant, so at home in Madison, with its very good book shop, its restaurants and cafes and bars. This bird is meant to be out in some cold storm-tossed ocean. The way it was occasionally paddling its legs like a lazy vacationing swimmer made me chuckle.

Other birds often know that something's not quite right, though. This time it was a Short-eared Owl. It appeared out of nowhere and circled several times above, calling. I didn't realize what graceful flyers they can be -- when it flapped it looked like a bat or a giant moth, but when it glided it was all elegance. It was hard to take a photo at all because with two such amazing birds in front of me at once my brain kind of popped.

Short-eared Owl, Hammonasett, 01/30/11

Meanwhile, on the other side of us, Horned Larks were calling, running across the snow. I wish all precipitation came in the form of snow. What a glittery hushed world it would be.

I'm heading to the southwest later this week -- Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, maybe southern California -- where the weather is warm and snow is reserved for mountaintops. I can't wait to chase new birds I've never seen before -- Rosy Finches, maybe the Taiga Bean Goose (I just want to see that because of its name). But I am sad to leave the snow. Spring will come and melt it all anyway, I know. Soon enough the world will return to noise and motion. Yet already I mourn these quiet moments we're having right now and the joy of everything being so unrecognizable in these drapes of sparkly white.

Pics of the Common Murre: Talking Nature and Shorebirder have proper photos where you can actually, you know, see the bird.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ninja Heron

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron at Milford Harbor

So stealthy, so unexpected. Sometimes in the summer I see Night-Herons doing their Ninja thing in Milford harbor -- standing like statues, waiting to suddenly lurch forward and stab at fish. But I think this is the first time I've seen one in the middle of winter. It took a minute or two of standing gazing at the pretty snow scene for the bird to resolve itself in my vision. What a lovely thought: that there is all manner of cryptic beauty out there waiting to be decoded.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ghostly wings

One of the most surreal moments I have ever had while out in nature came when I found myself looking into the eyes of a hooting Barred Owl only a few yards above me in a tree. It was as if someone had hit time's pause button. Looking into those enormous black eyes I grasped as I never had before what the words hunter and prey meant. 

There is something inherently thrilling about having an encounter with an owl. Scott Bowen just wrote a great blog post about the spooky joys of hearing Barn Owls in his Pennsylvania yard. And this New Year's at Nantucket I saw and heard Barn Owls for the first time. I was out with a group of friends doing the Christmas Bird Count. In the bright daylight we had seen a stand of evergreens where Barn Owls had habitually been feasting on their prey. The ground beneath was littered with owl pellets, small gray fuzzy logs that once were voles or mice. How bizarre and diverse life on this earth is: A creature exists that swallows its prey whole, breaks down the nutrients and absorbs them, then spits back up a ball of all the bits it doesn't want -- the fur, the bones. Pull one of these pellets apart, and inside you will find a whole, tiny white mammal's skull.

At the end of the day's count, as the last of the light was fading, from across an open field came pale wings, barely visible in the gloom. I'd been told that owls' wings are specially designed to be whisper quiet so that prey doesn't know what's about to hit it. But the utter silence with which this bird flew seemed unnatural, other-worldly -- as though it wasn't just flying silently but was draining the air of all sound. It flew behind a Barn Owl box, out of sight. It gave a call -- a tinkling sound that rang out like chimes. From out of the box unfolded another pair of ghostly wings, which took off into the darkness. Out of our line of sight, the two joined in the air and called to each other. This time they gave that bone-chilling Barn Owl sound I'd heard about -- a rasp like death, and so much louder than I'd imagined. Together, they doubled back over the box and passed over our heads, now giving the tinkling call back and forth. And off they flew to hunt the dark fields.

To hear the death-scream (well, that's what I like to call it) of the Barn Owl, click here.

Illustration: Thomas Bewick, History of British Birds (1847)