Of owls and seeing

Pete Dunne tells the story (and I like to repeat it) that one must be pure of heart to see most owls. He was speaking specifically of a particular barn owl that was purported to roost in a hacking box at Brigantine Wildlife Refuge years ago. At the time, I suspected his tactic was common among field trip leaders; an excuse for failing to produce an owl for a group of disappointed birders after having stood around in the freezing cold for hours, waiting.

In the intervening years, since having waited many times in the freezing cold for my own fair share of owls, I’ve come to understand the truth in Pete’s story. Owls are the stuff of imagination. Seeing these keepers of shadow requires exploring the edges of light… if one fails at it, the fault lies not in the seeing, but instead with one’s way of looking.

I’ve been sort of surprised in the last couple years to discover that I’m having trouble spotting birds… my distance vision is deserting me to the point that before long I’ll have to wear glasses when birding; glasses that I’ve stubbornly (and vainly) refused to wear anytime other than when I drive. I’ve become a dedicated listener instead: birdsongs I don’t recognize or can’t identify will drive me to distraction, but songs or calls help with only the easiest of owls.

Just as the omnipresence of noise makes it difficult to distinguish any one singer in the dawn chorus, the profane in a grove of pines can fill every nook and cranny of our time and space; the fertile silence that makes looking (and really seeing) is easily lost. When spotting owls, the looking is an art. Without true attention to it, an integral part of the reverence is destroyed… only the pure in heart are granted sight.

(Or you have a friend along who’s better at it.)

I was distracted with the trees and the pellets and the scattered bits of bone and feathers, the place this little forest made around me; no two trees the same, every branch saying HERE. I couldn’t stand still and let the trees (or the owls) find me.

It is the moon
not the finger
pointing at the moon
that calls us
back to ourselves

*Long-eared owl, regarding its own darkness in a well-known secret communal roost in Pa.

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