Isn’t it funny how an animal encounter can stay with you for years and years? About six years ago, I attended a workshop down at Whitewater State Park in the middle of January. It was one of those weekends with temperatures down to twenty below zero at night and not much warmer during the day. Luckily for us, we naturalists came prepared with mukluks and snow pants, mittens and wooly hats with earflaps. We were sleeping in bunkhouses like kids at camp, and around midnight two of the veteran naturalists in the group came to gather us to go hunting for owls.
After crunching through the snow to get deep into the woods, our leaders instructed us to spread out and sit silently with our backs against the trees to blend in with our surroundings. Obediently, I sat in the snow, leaning against a sturdy maple. Although I was bundled from head to toe, my every breath created a little puff in the air and a glittering ring of frost was forming on my scarf and hat. I had never experienced the woods in this way, and I had the giddy sensation of learning a great secret. The near absolute silence was broken when one of the naturalists let out a deep hoot like a great horned owl. On the other side of a hill, I could hear his partner hooting back to him. There was silence. I waited expectantly for an avian reply, but heard nothing. The two men repeated their calls. More silence ensued. Just when I thought that I couldn’t possibly sit there silently freezing any longer, I heard a series of low hoots float down from the tree branches directly above me, definitely from a real owl. A hundred feet away another owl hooted in response and it suddenly felt like magic as we all sat wordlessly in the sparkling snow on a subzero night listening to the owls hoot for at least another minute.
When we first moved into our house, I would sit in our living room and watch a red-tailed hawk that perched most days on a craggy old dead tree bordering the wetlands across the street. At times it would dive down into the marsh, but I could never see quite clearly enough to know what it was hunting. Two or three times that summer, a great horned owl swooped over the roof of my car just as I was rounding the bend to our house, presumably a resident of our backyard woods that was feasting on similar prey. When a neighborhood improvement project the next year stripped the trees and vegetation from the edges of the road and dug a channel in the wetland, the hawk and the owl sadly disappeared.
Now four years later, the vegetation has finally grown in enough along the edge of the marsh to give it a more natural appearance. There are no longer craggy old trees and twisted brambles, but the grasses and forbs have finally grown dense enough to hide field mice, turtles and even a beaver. One morning this fall as I was returning from a chilly predawn run, I thought I heard a faint hooting from the woods in the backyard. Could the owl be back again I wondered? A week or so later, I woke up in the middle of the night certain I had heard its voice again. My suspicions were finally confirmed when the owl swooped over the roof of my car as I pulled around the bend to our house the next week, just like old times.
A wise old owl once told me that nature sometimes needs a little helping hand to get itself back on track. By removing invasive species like buckthorn from a backyard woodland, retaining canopy, understory and ground cover plants, and filling in the gaps with a variety of native plants, we can gradually create our own natural spaces that are good for the land and water and even better for the birds. That same wise owl taught me that sometimes that little extra effort and the patience of waiting makes the reward all the much sweeter.