March 27, 2013
It is time for a confession: I am a bad birder. I don’t mean “bad” as it equals good, because I don’t even aspire to be a good birder with a life list long enough to encircle the globe. This may come as a surprise to friends and students who know my complete devotion to our avian kin, but even Roger Tory Peterson shared my distress over the “good” birders who trample nests of common species to get a glimpse of a rare one. I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Peterson a year before his death, and he rued the day he was first called the Father of Birding. He told me his goal was get people to slow down and look at birds, even the most familiar, rather than frantically making checkmarks in the field guides he had written.
To me, the gift of watching birds is presence, both the ineffable, intense being of the bird itself, and what happens inside me. I am quiet, focused, as alive as the glorious feathered creature breathing the same air. It makes no difference if the bird is common. One time when I was taking a bird biology class, I spent a cold afternoon hypnotized by a Black-capped Chickadee prying apart a pine cone. Everyone else rushed to check an earlier reported sighting of a Tufted Puffin on the water, and later expressed bitter disappointment at having braved a blustery winter walk to the beach for nothing. My experience with a common bird kept me warm the rest of the season.
But I must admit that less usual observations can be a special reward, and owls in particular have sent me searching. In some cultures, owl sightings are considered auspicious, and in others, they foretell disaster. Being in close proximity of efficient predators who fly silently through the liminal space between dusk and dawn, between life and death, I understand both interpretations. It is equally eerie and thrilling to come upon a nearly hidden owl, watching the world with eyes as large and luminous as planets. I have felt my heart suddenly stop, and then restart with pounding recognition as I adjusted to the owl’s gaze just a few feet away.
When you share that moment with another human being, it is a powerful bonding experience. A few years ago, my partner and I were fortunate to witness Barred Owl parents teach their young to fly. The first night we saw them, the still night was broken only by our occasional whispers, and the owls’ highly pitched, metallic-sounding calls to each other. A few nights later, we stood under the watchful eyes of the parents who allowed us within a few yards of their fledglings, until other people arrived with flashlights and loud voices. The owls disappeared back into the darkness, and we were caught in a disorienting beam of light. We wondered if the folks who spotted us recorded “2 old witch birds” on their life lists.
One of my fondest memories of an owl sighting is from childhood. My mother, terrified of birds since her own childhood, woke me late one winter night to look outside. The nearly full moon lit the back fence where a Snowy Owl perched. For once, she was unafraid, and the wordless hour we spent together was one of the best we ever shared. The bird returned the following night, and it was my turn to wake my mother to come watch again. Shortly before her death, we spoke of the experience as clearly as we had years before.
During the last 2 winters, there have been irruptions of Snowy Owls who venture into Seattle to find food. My feelings about this remain divided. It is a rare treat to know that they are close to us, but many of them are young birds who arrive in poor shape and face the real possibility of starving during their first winter. Their visitation is poignant.
Late last year, I received a commission to do a collage of a Snowy Owl. My hope was to see one before I started to layer bits of paper into distinctive feather patterns. All season, I dutifully checked every time I heard our resident crows join in mobs, but the disturbance always involved other birds of prey, and a raven or two, an equally unlikely sighting in our suburban city. And while I kept vigil, I looked at pictures of a Snowy standing on a nearby beach, and yet another perched on the roof of a neighborhood less than 6 miles away. Even a trip to the Skagit Valley, where a friend reported seeing 2 owls just a few days before, yielded countless swans and geese, harriers and eagles, but no Snowies.
When the time came, I retreated into my imagination to start the collage. Somehow, in the hustle of the last month, I found a quiet and necessary place in my studio for the owl to roost. It was a young owl, with lots of barring, and in good health. This bird stood still and posed in my mind’s eye so I could capture the gaze that makes hearts stop, and then race. I needed an avian sense of suspended time – of presence – even more than I realized. I finished the collage on a rare day off, and was thrilled to see a vibrant young Snowy Owl look back at me from the drafting table. At that moment, I thanked my mother for waking me on a frosty night long ago. I may not be a good birder, but I do know how to be present to life around me.