The Owl Search That Delivered a Moment

The first time I heard the owl, I thought of Owl Moon. Many years ago I had read Jane Yolen’s picture book that describes a father and child owling on a cold winter night. “Oh, to have that moment,” I thought the first time I read it. I didn’t even have children at the time, but the story moved me.

Wishes of seeing the owl that was hooting somewhere near my house penetrated dreamy half-slumber. But at 3 a.m., I wasn’t about to climb out of my toasty bed and trek into the cold to go owling myself. Maybe it would come at a time that fit my schedule better?

Many times over the course of a year, we heard the owl, then two owls calling back and forth, then possibly three. Sometimes they were far away. Sometimes we’d swear they were in our yard. At 4 a.m., their calls kept us awake. Still, I never left the comfort of my bed to find them. So much for Owl Moon. I looked up owl calls online, trying to figure out what kind they were. Still unsure, I settled on the Great Horned Owl. That’s a pretty big bird, with a body size of 18 to 25 inches.

One dark evening just as autumn was settling in, we heard hooting. My husband and I listened at the back door and watched as a large bird flew into our tree and another flew out of it. It was too dark and there were too many leaves to see anything else. It then became my mission to see these owls. When the leaves fell, surely I would be able to spot a large owl among our trees.

Something else had happened since the first time we had heard owl calls. At a local park, a pair of Barred Owls had been attracting visitors daily. While walking with a friend there a few months ago, I tried to show her where I had seen an owl hanging out back in the thick trees. I told her to look closely, but you can often spot them because of their size. We didn’t see one so we walked on.

A few feet away, my friend threw her arms out like an overprotective mother. Three feet above my head, gazing down at me, was a Barred Owl. Being so close to a wild owl was breathtaking, but neither of us wanted to walk under that tree branch. We felt a little like that huge bird would pluck one of us up and fly away. But it was a sight and I wished my kids could have seen it.

barred owl mominthemuddle.com

photo credit: Janet Wright

That made me want to see the mysterious owls in our yard even more. Please wouldn’t they show themselves after all this time?

One night at home, the owls did come early again. At 8:30 I heard the distinct call. Cold or no, this was my chance to go owling. My daughter and I bundled up and walked around the yard, listening to the owls’ calls. “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo.” Leaves crunched under our feet. We looked in all the trees, certain we’d see the silhouette of a large owl on the bare branches. The cold air nipped at our fingers. Our breath puffed like bursts of steam. Beyond the moonlight, stars twinkled. It was just us and the sounds of the owls. Then whispers. A flash of movement to the right. My daughter thought she saw something land and take off far away. We couldn’t be sure.

We stood side by side in the cold, still looking for owls. Silent. Still. Just the stars and us. We waited for the chill to take over our bones, for our feet to grow numb. We searched the stars, the branches, one another’s faces. With each frosty breath, we took it all in. Silence. We never saw an owl, but I wasn’t disappointed. All I could think was, “I hope she never forgets this moment.”

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29 Comments

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29 responses to “The Owl Search That Delivered a Moment

  1. That was really lovely. You DID create a moment for her, and I’m sure she’ll remember it. Those little times where we deviate from our usual routine can get imprinted in our brains for years to come.

    Great photo. It really is an amazing thing to see an owl close up. It’s only happened to me once, but I was nowhere near as close as you were.

    • I still hold out hope that we’ll see the one that visits our yard one day. After seeing that Barred Owl, I felt like I’d surely be able to see an outline of an owl in or around our yard. But at night eyes and shadows play tricks.

      Still, it was fun and different and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

      Seeing the one at the park–amazing! Gosh, he was a beauty. He stared at us for a long time.

  2. Very nice! Those are the great moments with your kids, even when there’s a different ending!

  3. This is so well done – nice moment caught.
    I don’t think I have ever seen or even heard an owl before.

    • Thanks. You know, I often wonder if my kids will remember things like this and think they are special. I had never seen or heard an owl before either. I wonder if they think it’s just something that happens all the time.

  4. Lovely story. How wonderful to see that Barred Owl.
    We hear owls often here, and looked out of our patio doors one evening to see three Tawny Owls sitting on a branch in our silver birch tree. We believe it was two adult birds and one young. Perhaps Mum and Dad were giving Junior tips on hunting.
    On our evening walks, we often see a pair of Barn Owls, but whether they are a mating pair is uncertain. On the same length of road there is a pair of screech owls. We are hoping to see young there shortly.

    • Those Barred Owls are amazing. And being in a public garden, they get lots of visitors. I’m surprised they haven’t been scared off by now, especially with crazy people with cameras gawking at them! But how could one pass up that opportunity? I could watch animals all day.

  5. Love this story of an unforgettable moment with your child! These snapshots in time are such a gift!

  6. Oh Karen! I just love this post, been waiting to know which owl it was. So glad you and your daughter got to share something so special.

    With raw woods on our property, we are fortunate to have several pairs voicing their disputes. Since we hear them at least weekly, Angie has their call down pat and can do it on command — perfectly. She just added the barred owl to her 2014 birding journal; she has a goal of 100 birds and is already up to 45 or so.

    I hope you’re hooked and that you WILL do it again. Maybe you’ll even build an owl box. Incidentally, I got video of one in my yard about a year ago (http://wp.me/p28k6D-Wj) with a link to the barred owl call as well (mine was quiet). Makes my hairs prick when we hear them in the middle of the night!

    • I think the two are having territorial disputes and that maybe that’s what my husband and I witnessed the night we saw them flying in and out of the tree. When there are two, first one is far away and then gets closer. As the second gets closer, the first gets a bit argumentative. It’s quite interesting to listen to. Or I could be wrong and they are mating calls. I really don’t know what I am talking about. ;)

      I’m still not certain of the identity but that’s the sound of the call that most fits what we hear. And if it’s a Great Horned Owl, well, I would sure love to see it!

      A birding journal is an excellent idea. My daughter would love that. She has a bird identification book to look at but I don’t think keeps track of what she sees.

  7. These birds are indeed huge. 20 years ago, one swooped down and past me because I had startled him. I’ve never forgotten it.

    • I can see why. I don’t doubt I’ll ever forget looking up into that tree and seeing that face staring down at me either! I’m just so glad my friend was able to capture the moment.

  8. Beautiful! Just because you haven’t seen one yet doesn’t mean you won’t! Keep owling!

    I live in a fairly rural area, close to vast parks. The year it was home, I frequently saw them at dusk. But they are incredibly quiet, except when they are hooting. You really can barely hear them when they fly.

    We never see but frequently hear screech owls. The first time I made my husband go out in the middle of the night to make sure no poor woman was being attacked on our doorstep. Terrible sound!

    • I would love to see one at dusk. When I’m out walking this time of year, I’m always looking up in the trees to see if I can spot one sleeping. I’m surprised I haven’t fallen yet. I have run into a few branches.

      My kids always hear mourning doves and think those are owls. No screech owls around though.

  9. Such a great experience for you both. And very cool that you documented it, MM!

  10. Beautifully written, Karen. A couple of months ago, I tried to “save” an owl from the highway because I thought he was injured. I had no idea what I was going to do with him once I got him off the road, but I couldn’t stand the thought of someone hitting him. As soon as I got out of the car, he flew away and landed in a nearby tree. If only I had taken a picture!

  11. I’m glad you didn’t get eaten by the owl. :)

    And that was a beautifully written post!

  12. What a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing! On a trip to Florida last year my husband and I saw a small burrowing owl while on a night walk to the beach. It was magical. I would love to see a large owl of any kind. They are amazing.

  13. Great story. And great blog.
    – M

  14. What a beautiful story — and I remember doing similar things with my kids, thinking those same things, hoping they’d never forget the moment, like when we woke up super early on a camping trip to go look for a moose… I love these stories and those moments.

    • Oh, I would love to do that too! We went to Maine this summer and hoped we’d just spot one. Of course we didn’t. I often wonder what my kids will remember. I doubt it will be the same things I do, but I know they’ll have special memories just the same.

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