I close my eyes and remember the sweetness of slipping my cold fingers into the feathers of my great horned owl. Bacchus especially likes it when I nuzzle into his head feathers – soft, warm. My fingers are half buried a little forest of feathers that look smooth on the outside but have a cozy pocket of air and fluff underneath. Bacchus loves a gentle scratch. He turns his head a little, inviting me to work on another spot.
Back to reality: Have you ever seen birds preening each other? It looks cozy and affectionate. Just think about it. A bird can reach most of its feathers with its bill for a good preening / cleaning, but not its head. To groom its head, the owl has to resort to using its feet and work with one claw at a time. Well, a human and a bird can do that too if you have the right relationship with each other. For it to work, there has to be trust between the both of you. It has been my privilege to have that connection with a great horned owl, actually two of them, but at different times in my life.
These memories came bubbling up last week when I spent over three hours, over a span of two days, with a relaxed, wild great horned owl. My owl watching started the day before, on Thursday, at the tail end of the last hot day of summer. Our first sighting was in the early greyness of approaching dusk. An owl perched in one of the gnarly willows that are dotted along the toe of Sheepy Ridge, Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We found three great horned owls in a span of about ¼ mile along the road that parallels Sheepy Ridge. They may well belong to the same family. The first owl was a bit far away. A stiff wind was blowing his ear tufts and even slipping into his breast feathers. He was awake, ready to start his day, or rather, his night.
On Friday the real owl watching started. We passed the owl spot midday and were surprised to find a great horned owl perched on an exposed limb. Odd to see an owl perched out in the open during the daytime. Maybe he is enjoying the switch to fall weather as much as I am. He sits on the bare branch of a gnarly willow – the willow leaves are still green, just a suggestion of gold starting. Bits of rusty colored lichen brighten the rough bark. Beneath the willow is a mix of long golden grasses and bright yellow rabbit brush glowing in the clean air.
He is a sleepy fellow. When sleeping an owl pulls lower eyelids up, his forehead feathers down a little, and he tucks his head until he has no neck. He sits fluffed just a little. An annoyed owl skinnies down. An alert owl looks at you with those big yellow eyes, or maybe glares at you with squinty, half closed eyes. I find their body language is more expressive than that of a lot of birds.
The owl stirs, then fluffs out his breast feathers. Time to preen a foot. He raises a furry foot and carefully nibbles on it. The foot really is covered with feathers, but it looks like fur. Their feet are furry right down to their claws. Soon he settles his feathers again and his eyelids slowly close. Three yellow-rumped warblers fly into his willow. One flits to within two feet of the owl, but the owl doesn’t stir.
Dale and I both watched the owl for a while from the car, but now Dale has dropped me off for half an hour. I stand on the roadside just a few yards from the sleepy owl. The owl gives me a scowly peek and then goes back to sleep. I savor the opportunity to stand out here in the fall sunshine and soak up the ambiance of his world. I have the ridge rising behind the owl and can see for miles in the other direction. A mile away are some potato harvesters, otherwise I have this huge chunk of the world to myself. I become aware of a soft, constant buzz. Midges have gathered above me, just like they often swarm over the tip of a tree or bush. None come close enough to touch me and midges don’t bite. It’s rather nice to have become part of their landscape. I put my camera on the ground and start sketching.
Saturday: 5:30 PM: We’re back watching the great horned owl. We were here this morning too. He has moved to a different willow, about twenty feet to the left, but still sits in the open. Beautiful light! The trees are already in the shadow of Sheepy Ridge, but just a little farther out, bright sunshine falls on golden stubble fields. The end result is a soft, warm, reflected light on the owl. The owl is beautiful ... and awake. Bright yellow eyes look us over. Then he turns his head, as if purposefully dismissing us.
Dale and I watch while the owl looks one way and then another. For awhile he watches the ground, then stands on his left leg and stretches both his right leg and right wing – way, way out. A little careful scratching is in order too.
We’ve been watching and photographing for half an hour when Dale says he thinks he has photographed about all the owl’s poses possible. We’re heading home today and have over three hours of driving ahead. Of course I say, “There is always another,” but, I, too, know we need to get headed home.
But … the owl is intent. He watches one spot beneath him on the ground. Down he goes! And disappears into tall grass. When he raises his head, I can just see the top of of it. Did he catch something? A vole? A lizard? He stays mostly hidden for over a minute, long enough to swallow his prey.
Up he goes, back to his perch ... and all I get is tail feathers with my camera. Beautiful tail feathers.
There he sits, looking very smug and a little fluffed.
And it really is time for us to head home.