There had been rumors circulating in the neighborhood for some time. “Have you seen the owls?” There is a core of us up on the ridge who are fairly nature-oriented. You know how that is. I mean, who isn’t nature-oriented? And yet, some just aren’t. But for a few of us working the land and raising animals and insects in the open space, news of a nest and a clutch of owlets is enough to mobilize. Not necessarily strict bird watchers, not one of us, and yet visions of nature and views of the truly wild promise a deep-seated thrill and a sense of connection we can’t get any other way. So, when word got around of a mated pair of Great Horned Owls with a nest, we organized for an outing to see them. My daughter had been to see them before with neighbors so she was our guide. She knew where to stop, where to stand, and where the communal binoculars were hidden for any and all in-the-know to use and to replace, camouflaged with some sticks and grasses.
There were others there, stopped by the trail when we arrived after a mile’s hike on the fire road. We weren’t the only ones to come in search of young owls. My daughter slipped right into her appointed role, producing the binoculars and directing people she had never met to the best vantages for viewing.
The owlets were bigger than I expected, like fully grown owls, only fuzzy. The nest was large and haphazardly constructed, not something I would expect to last the season. My daughter, she is ten, informed me that these owls have been returning year after year but they make a new nest each year. (How does she know this, I wonder? And yet, it is time for me to stop asking that question. She knows what she knows. That, now, has to be enough.)
There seemed to be two birds occupying the nest (reports were that there were three), but one young owl, completely shrouded in pale lanugo fuzz, stood vigilant watch. Our dog, a large, Landseer Newfoundland, was clearly a most curious sight as the owlet watched the dog wherever it wandered.
I knew the mama wouldn’t be far – these owls hunt and fly at night, sleep and roost during the day – but she wasn’t in evidence, not near the nest, anyway. And then, as an apparition, there all the time, she was there. She was perched not far away, and yet far enough to survey the scene from an appropriate vantage. She watched her nest and her young, maybe hoping to gain some sleep in quiet moments – who knows? – but vigilant to the goings on of her brood.
It was unexpected to see her there, perched on her branch, just watching. I thought the chances remote. And yet, when my eyes lighted on her, it was sudden and unmistakeable. Her tall tall, stately bird form, perfectly placed, seemed inevitable. Where else would she be? She belongs.
We live in Marin County. We live in San Anselmo. We live in a neighborhood in which houses occupy quarter-acre lots and power polls run wires that hover over the roads, blotting the sky. But nature is here, not far, nesting and perching in the open spaces that surround our neighborhoods. It is there and it waits and watches. Most of the time we don’t see it. Our attention is drawn elsewhere by other things, things we consider more urgent if not more important, and so we manufacture the illusion of separation. But it is just an illusion.
I amused myself thinking of, perhaps, not having seen that mother owl. She was watching, her nest and us. How often does that happen? I thought of a poem I had read recently and taught to my students.
Leisure by William Henry DaviesWhat is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. No time to stand beneath the boughs And stare as long as sheep and cows. No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass. No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars like skies at night. No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance. No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began. A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.