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)

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