Barred Owls, Strix varia, may have been howling and hooting as year-round residents of this hillside in Western Massachusetts for more than 11,000 years. Fossils of their species, that many years old, have been uncovered in Florida, Tennessee and as far north as Ontario. These raptors of night are typically hidden in layers of darkness but do sometimes hunt during daytime hours.
Looking out over the panoramic views of Flower Hill Farm Retreat, always stimulates the imagination. But last Saturday was even more delicious as it brought something I had been longing for over the years — a rare sighting of this bird of prey. I was busily preparing to go to the transfer station and farmer’s market, when I noticed a burly Barred Owl perched on a lower branch of an old Rock Maple that has stood for over two-hundred years just a jump outside the doors of our farmhouse. This was my first ever sighting of a Barred Owl in thirty-seven years. Nearly nightly, I had heard one or more owls calling out their familiar “Who cooks for you . . . ?” and their wild caterwauling carried up from the forest’s canopy through the silence of nighttime into the farmhouse. But I had never seen one.
I was not the only one to notice the unusual day appearance of the Barred Owl. Chickadees, finches and titmice had a different reaction to the owl. Where I was in amazement, they were all up in wings and made no attempt to hide their feelings of territorial light outrage.
The owl was simply trying to snooze and keep warm while the intrepid songbirds dived towards her. She did not seem bothered by the birds or by my opening the backdoor to get better photos. This was after a half hour or more of taking hundreds of images through glass.
There was one quiet little beast lying frozen beneath the tree and hidden talons of the barred. The keen eyesight of the owl could not miss the recumbent remains of a field mouse that made a fatal mistake of coming inside my barn studio. It saddens me to kill any living creature, but it was a quick death and the timid country mouse was destined to become part owl. Owls and other predators help keep field mice in check outdoors. The surviving mice do get my message pretty quick and tend to honor our policy of no wild critters allowed indoors.
Looking up at the Barred Owl through my zoom lens, I imagined her to be a wise being. I journeyed into the calm deep pools of her black eyes and tried to follow her nocturnal flights through seasons that passed away while she and her mate stayed close to this landscape, content not to roam far, for possibly twenty-four years.
After an hour, I had to give up waiting to see the wide wingspan of the Barred Owl as she flew down to scoop up the mouse. I carried my camera with me as I walked over beyond our shed to the car park and looked back up towards the camouflaged owl. She seemed serene and showed no concern for my presence. If I resembled a Great Horned Owl, the barred would have moved away quickly and she did not feel safe with my red honda backing up into the driveway next to the house. When I got out of the car to load it, I noted the absence of the owl. Later, when I returned from my errands the mouse was gone too.