Barred Owl at Twilight

Late on a dark gray, damp and cloudy January day, the sky was crowded with big leftover rain-clouds and a strong, cold wind was blowing from the west. Water stood and flowed in ditches and low spots and down hills all through the neighborhood, after yesterday’s heavy rains, and the ground was littered with small branches and other debris. All day a strong wind had kept the trees and shrubs tossing and bending and rippling wildly, as the temperature dropped. 

As I walked, the wind became a little less harsh, and the clouds were beautiful to watch, with blushes of pink and peach and cream here and there, appearing and disappearing, and small breaks where very pale turquoise showed through. But twilight seemed to come early, so when I saw a big dark shape among the tangled, bare branches of an oak near the side of the road, all I could see was a silhouette among the black-etched branches, sitting very still. But the shape and size were so distinctive there was never any doubt – it had to be a Barred Owl. With a very large, round head and thick neck, thick body, and a few tail feathers extending down from the branch where it sat. I could hardly believe my eyes, and came to a stop not far from the tree at all, and stood, looking up. This is the first time in many years I have seen a Barred Owl here, though we do still hear them now and then. 

And of course – I did not have binoculars. It was so late in the day, and so gray and so windy – and indeed, I saw and heard very few other birds. But rarely have I missed binoculars so much! Though it looked like full twilight, I’m sure I could have seen much more detail if I’d had them. A Barred Owl is large and mostly brown with white barring and mottling on its back and tail, and a buffy front with dark barring and streaks. It’s head and face are round, and its face is especially beautiful, with big dark eyes and very fine, intricate markings defining it. It does not have ears. As it was, I stood and watched and watched for many minutes. And the owl – sat where it was. Formidable and calm, mostly still, occasionally turning its big head one way or the other. It looked huge. I gradually moved a little closer and closer until I was right underneath the tree, but the owl was up pretty high, so I still couldn’t see any hint of color or detail. I tried some photos with my phone, without much luck, and even this did not seem to bother the owl.

Finally, I walked on a few steps further and turned so that I could see it from the other direction – and at that point, it flew, dropping down and turning away from me and the road to fly low across a mostly open grassy yard. Its wings flapped most of the way, not gliding. When it reached a line of trees beyond the yard, it flew swiftly up into one and at that point I had a very brief, clear view of its brown back and wings, before it melted into the woods.

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