Monday, September 8, 2008

Whooo's There?

For a few minutes last night, I thought I was in the middle of a Harry Potter movie! I had gone to bed, turned off the TV and the lights and was drowsing off into neverland, when suddenly, at the edge of my consciousness, I heard an unidentifiable sound. Unidentifiable sounds are not generally a good thing when you live miles from your nearest neighbor and have a bunch of animals you care for. I threw on my shoes and ran for the door, grabbing the giant flashlight along the way. As I opened the door the noise became much more distinct but no more recognizable. It was a loud, repetitive shriek but not the scream I associate with mountain lions. My first thought was that one of the baby llamas had been injured somehow. I stepped outside and pulled the door closed behind me, worried about Frank the cat following me into the darkness. As I took a step forward I realized the noise was not coming from the llama enclosure, but rather was directly in front of me and headed my way. I turned on the flashlight and couldn't believe what I was seeing. There, not 25 feet away and coming straight at me were not one, but two great horned owls, one behind the other and slightly to its side, both with wings fully outspread as they seemed to be coming in for a landing on my head!

No doubt the smart thing to do would have been to dive for the door, but I was totally frozen in place, completely mesmerized by a sight so beautiful I was having a hard time taking it in. They angled upward as they reached me and landed on the roof directly above where I was standing. I took a few steps forward to look up at them, turning off the flashlight so as not to blind them with the light. The security light from the pole by the llama pen allowed more than enough light to see their giant silhouettes on the roof. One of the two took off almost immediately and resettled on top of the llama shed 100 feet away. The other sat on the roof for several minutes while I looked up at it until it also flew off only to land close by on top of the hay pile. The whole time this was taking place they never stopped screaming back and forth for a second.

I was so pumped up by the whole thing I didn't get back to sleep for at least an hour after coming inside. I was also trying to make sense of what I had seen - for one thing, I have heard great horned owls before and they make the normal "hoo, hoo, hoo" sound you expect them to make, not the ear-splitting screech I had just heard. Also, my understanding is that it is rare to see two of the giant birds acting together like that. Then, in talking to Ken this morning, he came up with the most likely explanation. What I had witnessed was not a pair of owls hunting together, it was a fight for territory. That is why they were so unconcerned with my presence and focused on each other instead. With the number of bunnies and rodents we have around here, this must be considered a prime location for an owl and they don't want to share.

Last night's visit was actually my second amazing bird sighting of the day. Earlier I had been on my way across the yard to my studio when a prairie falcon suddenly came up out of a cedar bush right in front of me. I ran back to the house and grabbed the camera knowing there was probably a freshly killed pigeon in the bush and hoping the falcon would be back to finish his meal. As I went back to the studio I glanced in the bush to see if I could see the target and there, instead of the pigeon I was expecting, was a headless baby chukar (the first thing falcons do is chop off the head of their prey). Falcons will only take their victims in the air so the poor baby must have been spooked enough to fly rather than his usual mode of running away from threats. Little did he know his flight would be his downfall. The falcon must have been sufficiently scared by me because he didn't return. I felt badly about the kill for two reasons - first, I'd rather see the predator bird stick to his usual menu of squab and second, I hate that he didn't get to eat his prey after managing to kill it.

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