It had been a challenging day, but our sensitive little chihuahua-poodle mix still needed to go on a walk. The walk was actually quite welcome so I determined to make it a relaxing one. This means Jewel gets to choose where we go. With her nose to the ground we pause at each street corner and I ask her, “Which way, Jewel?” Her response is to pull the leash in whatever way she wants to head.
This time she lead me toward the creek, but instead of going to it we turned up the hill to the block above the creek. We walked parallel to the creek for a few blocks in the cool thirty-five degree Fall air, then turned around and walked back the way we'd come. Just before the turn at the intersection that takes us away from the creek there is an alley that curves around and runs parallel to the street, though when you first enter it it looks like you are entering someone's private driveway. It is surrounded by beautiful, majestic mature oak, pine and maple trees that provide shade and cover for wildlife along the creek. By this time in November, however, the leaves have all fallen and been raked and composted, which gives you a better view of what is hiding in and around the trees. We walked past a singing pair of northern cardinals concerned about our presence. Red-bellied woodpeckers often “chrrr” here, and black-capped chickadees, goldfinches and white-breasted nuthatches move about among the trees, making their presence known by voicing their distinctive calls. Gray squirrels are abundant here, with an ocasional eastern chipmunk or red squirrel, while voles, shrews and mice scurry around underneath the leaves on the ground. Jewel and I were about to forgo walking down the alley when I heard a deep “whoo-whoo-whoo whoo whoo” above my head and behind me. That was the unmistakable call of a great-horned owl very close by. It was shortly answered by a second owl with a slightly higher pitch, also very near by. Its mate, perhaps. It was just about the time of late afternoon when they'd be waking up from napping to go on the hunt. I had to take the opportunity to try and catch a glimpse of this large pair, nearly two feet tall from head to the tip of their tails, though I was conscious of Jewel's need to keep warm. We turned around, walking slowly first toward the alley entrance then into the alley and around the curve. As we walked Jewel appeared unconcerned with the continued hooting, but I was excited. Owls are elusive, only hunting in the dark of night. Their feathers are designed to keep them especially quiet in flight, making it easy for them to swoop onto their prey without that rabbit or mouse even hearing what hit them. Owls can hear the slightest rustle of leaves from many feet away and know exactly where that mouse under the leaves or snow is, aiming their powerful talons directly for their target. Their stealthy approach is deadly.
Owls' calls make them amazingly difficult to locate. The source of the call can be deceiving, which is why Jewel and I paused in the alley to listen carefully for more hooting. I took a quick breath in when I heard a “whoo-whoo-whoo whoo whoo” very close to us and when I looked down at Jewel to see if she had heard it, too, she quickly tilted her head and looked straight up into the sixty-foot tamarack tree directly in front of us about 20 feet. I followed her stare and found she had pinpointed the branch that a large great-horned owl was perched upon. As we both watched attentively, the owl leaned forward seemingly looking down at us, flared the white patch of feathers under its beak and hooted again. Each time it hooted E flat above middle C its mate answered with an identical call slightly higher in pitch, G above middle C. I wasn't able to find the mate until the bird we'd been following quietly let go of its branch and flew to perch next to it. It greeted its mate with a slightly quieter and softer “whoo-whoo-whoo” and a touch of their beaks. I was completely entranced, and a little concerned that Jewel might be cold, so I reached down to scoop her up, cuddling her against my chest. We stood watching the pair of birds until I thought we'd better head back home. Reluctantly, I set her back on the ground and we slowly walked away from the owls. I kept an eye on them in the unlikely case they should decide that a twelve-pound dog might make a good snack.
About one block later I remembered that my husband, who also enjoys owls, was probably in the car on his way home from our friends' house not too far away. I considered calling him on my cell phone to see if he wanted to meet me to see the owls together. It was getting colder, however, and just as I'd decided against calling him, his car approached from the direction of our friends' house. I motioned for him to pull over, excitedly telling him about my experience. He shared my enthusiasm, but needed to head home. As he was driving away and I was walking Jewel, I remembered that just a few hours earlier I had prayed for the opportunity to be able to again travel to the Superior North Shore with Ken. Lately, I've been feeling the need to get out of town for a change of pace, but we want to follow all the best coronavirus-fighting guidelines. My husband and I share a deep appreciation for the natural world and for its Maker, but travel restrictions are keeping us home to be safe.
I felt genuine thanksgiving for living here where I can see and hear owls without driving anywhere, and praise to our Maker who created Ken and I and our world. No other being can make an owl from scratch. This sighting doesn't happen every day here in our neighborhood. My eyes and ears were attentive and open, ready to receive the gift of joy that was delivered right into my waiting arms. No need for Fed Ex or UPS. How cool is that?! Thank you, God, for owls, for dogs, for partners, for family, and for autumn!
I hope that you, too, are able to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the little joys of the life before you. Thanksgiving can be a daily celebration of all the good in your life. It doesn't have to occur only one day each year. Each day, every day practice being thankful for every little thing. I guarantee you and the people (and animals!) around you will be happier and enjoy life more because of it.