For nearly two hours I stood on the woodland path and watched the big bird through my binoculars.
It had taken flight from a fallen log as I entered the forest path from the meadow. When I moved from the heat of the midday sun, from the whirring sounds of bees and cicadas, to the cool stillness of the oak and hemlock forest, I caught sight of the broad tail behind silent beating wings. Red-tail for sure, I thought, as I raised the binoculars to my eyes and nudged the focal knob with a fingertip. But the tail was barred and the head was round like the moon. Barn owl, I thought—but the eyes were a deep brown, leaving a barred owl as the only possibility in this landscape.
The bird had perched on the limb of a hemlock where it stared down at me through a tangle of tree branches. Scarcely breathing, holding the glasses steady, I inched my way down the trail to get a better view.
Its back was dark and mottled with white patches; the head was grey. Because the bird angled away from me, I couldn’t get a good look at the breast.
For twenty minutes we stared each other down over the fifty yards of forest floor between us. Periodically the bird would gyrate its head, seemingly to get a better look at me. Finally it lifted up off the branch and dropped down through the trees.Afraid that I had lost it for good, I stepped steadily down the path, keeping an eye out for the thick silhouette. Tree trunks shifted as I moved. Finally, there it was, perched on a fallen birch limb in full frontal view. No mistake now—I could see the large streaked cream-colored breast to clinch the bird’s identification.
For the next hour we faced each other in silence. Periodically the owl would hood its eyes for minutes at a time, only to open them at a sudden sound in the woods. The bird would look up, revealing its flat-faced profile, or turn its head 180 degrees to preen its back. Several times it extended one wing well below the end of its tail, fanning its feathers in the stretch, or extruded a feathered pantaloon. Once it lifted a talon to rake the right side of its head, the way a small flea-infested mutt might scratch an ear; three times I saw it yawn to reveal a pink palate below the curve of its yellow beak. Finally it settled down altogether, closed its eyes and slept.
For a while I watched the way the sunlight caught the edge of the owl’s head and shoulder. I recalled that owls are nocturnal hunters, and for all I knew this bird might continue to hunker down on its perch until eventide.
Conscious of the pain in my lower back and shoulders, I took one last look at this magnificent bird before gliding silently down the forest path on my own wings of elation. I reached a hand into my pocket and felt for the penny I had found on the village street at the start of my walk. It was still there in silent testimony to my good fortune on this last day of summer.