Owl in the Snow

Nonfiction

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a large brownish blob under the cherry tree on our front lawn.

 

“Looks like a stump, how’d that get there?” My husband scratched his head.

We’d been having some fierce winds through the month of January and the previous night had been no exception. But strong enough to roll and plant a block of wood that size? Besides, where had it come from? There was something about it that looked odd, and it was just far enough away we couldn’t see clearly. I ran upstairs to grab the binoculars.

“You aren’t gonna believe this.” I passed them over after I’d taken one incredulous look.

It was an adult brown owl! He was sitting very still, his broad head tucked. He did, indeed, look like an innocuous stump. With a magnified lens, it appeared as a stump with lovely rich graining and thickly textured bark. How peculiar.

His stillness was unsettling, so was the thought of a nocturnal creature sitting so exposed on the harsh, cold brightness of newly fallen snow. We took our posts at the living room window and sat quietly watching, willing him to move. It was reassuring to see he was at least upright.

After about thirty minutes, his head rolled up. With his ear tufts visible, there was now no mistaking what he was. One long wing lifted; a quick slice through air. It brought to mind the flipper of a breaching right whale. The other wing spread, he hopped once, trying to launch, then just as quickly, settled back into a motionless, unassuming heap.

We held our breath, watching and waiting, willing him to move again. It took longer this time. It was hard not knowing what to do. Should we intervene somehow? Instincts said no, but what if he was seriously hurt?

I called the Department of Natural Resources and described the scenario unfolding on our front lawn. The technician couldn’t have been more helpful. He suggested waiting two hours, saying that would give the bird’s brain time to reconfigure if he’d had a knock. The stillness is their way of conserving energy. It was indeed a good sign that we’d seen him move his head and attempt to fly. That’s all I needed to know. A timeline made all the difference.

I decided to make coffee. My mistake. When I returned to my post not more than five minutes later, there was only whiteness where he’d been. I noticed a shadow wavering on the ground, looked up and saw the lowest branch on the tree, black and slender against the snow, bobbing slightly under the weight of this huge mass of feathers.

I held my breath and saw with a mixture of unabashed delight and bitter disappointment that he’d flown the tiny distance from his perch on the ground and lifted himself enough to sway regally in the light wind. I’d missed it.

He remained inanimate, but upright, his tufted ears prominent. With suspended breath, I watched him swivel toward me. His eyes were tawny gold, ringed with black. It appeared he was looking directly at me, that he held my gaze. The mottled feathers, dark on top, paler beneath ruffled richly in the breeze. His talons, sienna sharp, gripped the bark, crusted in spots with a silvery lichen.

He stayed there for a long time, bobbing quietly, his body still. You could see he was gathering strength, and, quite possibly, courage. I thought how hard it must be for this proud, majestic creature to find himself unsure of what his own body was capable of doing. Would it see him through, or ultimately fail him? He seemed very human to me then.

Moments later, the lowest branch bounced in a wild vertical dance as the owl rose gracefully, in a singular fluid motion. His massive wings were perfectly aligned as he flapped four times in quick succession, and then glided in a smooth sweep to land atop the highest reach of the towering white spruce at the yard’s edge.

This was his home, his treetop aerie. He’d called from there early mornings and late evenings for as many years as I could remember. His throaty hoots mussing the dawn-dusk tranquility, lilac hued and lovely. All was right again.

Virginia Boudreau is a retired teacher living on the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. Her poetry and prose have appeared in a wide variety of international literary publications.