Enchantment. Exhilaration. Breathless rapture. No one at work understands when I explain the elation that comes with a great birding experience. You know the kind of moments I’m talking about, when nature “happens” right in front of you? Take, for instance, the latest field trip to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge this January.
It’s around 7:45 a.m. on a cool but comfortable Saturday morning. The refuge is relatively deserted due to the shutdown and resultant lack of restroom facilities.
For the same reason, our own group is smaller than normal as our caravan watchfully wends down Lighthouse Road and makes its first stop at the double bridges. The East River has overflown its banks and the forest floor is a mirror punctuated by dark trunks and vines for a mile in all directions.
As I eagerly emerge from the car, my ears are first greeted by the clear, bold calls of yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Small groups of goldfinches and wood ducks whiz by overhead, identified by one of our group’s leaders, Lucy Duncan. Our other leader, Bob, is far ahead by now, scouting the second bridge. A few of us are mesmerized by a particularly engaging eastern phoebe when we’re jolted by a loud call from behind us.
It was just Lucy, attempting to conjure up a barred owl for everyone after some unsuccessful owling the night before. I smile in amusement at my own gullibility. “This is the female solicitation call,” I hear her say. As I put my binoculars back on the phoebe, I listen intently, deeply hoping for a reaction.
A moment later, the silence is broken again by a barred owl call, the familiar one you learn by mnemonics, but this time from the moss-covered trees ahead of us. After taking a few steps to my right, there it was!
Up in a bald cypress, not far off, this alert, dark-eyed owl swiveled its fluffy head around, peering intently through the surrounding leafless canopy. I had barely begun to study its ghostly appearance when it flew in close, right above our whole group in the first tree along the road’s edge, staring down at us and then off into the distance. Again it called, right over our heads, as we stood frozen like probably every prey animal within earshot.
It remained at this perch for perhaps a minute as we stood there, jaws on the ground, smiling uncontrollably and even laughing with joy that this was happening. Here was the best view I’d likely ever have of one of these fabulous birds. As I looked around at the others and fumbled some words to explain how exciting this was, the owl flew over our heads, across the road and now perched in a tree even lower, still in plain sight. I watched as it called again, noticing this time how it put its whole body into this prolonged, visibly forceful exertion.
Unnoticed, a second owl had silently swooped in and perched on another branch overhanging the very road where we stood. A few others and I see it and call out. Within a second, our whole group simultaneously pivots in place to see it right over us.
It locates the first owl and screams out a variety of chilling sounds that I can only describe as something between an excited chimpanzee and an appalled American crow. This new owl then springs from its perch into the same tree with the first owl and resumes howling at it, spurring a heated response from the first in what amounted to a strigid version of a shouting match.
Those experts among us who could formulate sentences in this moment for those of us agog like myself informed the group that this was a female and male, judged by the differing quality of their voices. Once the stupor wore off, it didn’t take long for the jokes to begin about this possibly pair-bonded male getting caught seeking greener pastures. Laughing at that and the thrill of the sighting, I climbed back into the car with a huge smile on my face. This was the feeling that my colleagues at the office would never understand on Monday.
By Chris Wiley