Superb Owl Day
For the first time, fearless Amanda Byrd must mind her turbulent grand-niece while on a special birding excursion, on the day of the SuperBowl.
Our sharp-eyed guide pointed silently towards one of the husky, snow-powdered spruce branches. There, its mottled cream and caramel-brown plumage almost invisible against the tree background, its pale heart-shaped face marked with the dark marbles of its eyes, was a discreet nocturnal bird doing its best to avoid the sharp daylight.
You rarely got to see a Barred owl from such a close distance, in a cold February afternoon, a meager dozen feet from the trail our small gaggle of birders was following. I didn’t even need my 8×42 Bushnell binoculars to take in its 22-inch long body from head to tail. I felt I could just stretch an arm to brush the fine down on its roundish head.
Well, not that I would do such an impolite gesture in front of my small niece. But my sister’s first grandchild had no such qualms herself.
“Hooo, hooo!” Mona said, her bright red mittens cupped in front of her mask, her brown eyes full of glee.
The owl’s neck moved like a tank turret to investigate the disturbance, one abyssally-dark eye blinking under a fluffy cream eyelid.
Most owls had gaudy-colored irises, orange or gold, framing round pupils; Barred owls had obsidian eyes, like black glass, the irises indistinct. Owl’s eyes were not slitted like cats’ to minimize incoming light, so the nocturnal bird protected its sensitive retinas.
Its downy eyelids, lowered at half-mast, gave him a perpetual air of either wisdom or sleepy annoyance.
Some owls’ tufted feathers reached out in points, like the Great horned owl, but this owl’s tapered along the round head.
When the owl’s head moved, Mona hooted happily.
“He looks like caramel ice cream with nuts!”
Count on children in the dead of winter to talk about ice cream, I thought, shivering.
The bird’s colors rather reminded me of an ill-fitting wool pull one of my own “aunties” had knitted for me (forgetting that teenage years were also growing up years) with a pattern of creamy whites and spatter of light brown stitches, at odds with the gaudy colors the sixties era favored.
I wore it for a time, to please my aunt, and as a camouflage to observe birds, Eventually, the mites found it. My mother unraveled the pull and knitted a warm scarf with it. Now that scarf, decades later, I wore in my winter bird watching, those muted hues being less aggressive.
I breathed in the cold air through the scarf and my thin face mask. The low temperatures prevented me from getting the scents of pine and fresh snow, but the odor of old wool impregnated with my mom’s patience remained present. I wore a heavier daypack with a thermos and collation.
But at least, it was a rewarding activity to go birding on the ‘Superb-Owl’ Sunday, as birders called this day. The name had been coined by a passionate birder in the 90s, and since then, many bird-lovers found out, in cities and woods alike, how quiet that peculiar Sunday was. The usual troves of weekend hikers also dried out on that day.
At this moment, my nephew, along with half the United States population, was lounging on his living room couch watching football players as colored as birds disputing a spectacular waste of money. (I’m told the commercial spots alone cost several millions.)
Meaning that, on Superbowl day, our small group of dedicated birders had the huge park near Albany, NY – and all its birds– to ourselves.
Including our own elusive, superb owls.
That is, if one of us did not scare said birds away with her bubbling enthusiasm.
“Hush,” I said, putting one gloved hand on her shoulder. “Don’t disturb the dozing bird.”
Using a low tone, I reminded her that owls were sleeping in the day, and would she like to be waken up all night by noisy adults?
Mona’s bright eyes misted as soon as she realized her mistake. Of course, this was her first winter birding trail, and also the first time she actually saw in flesh and feathers a full-sized adult owl. She could be allowed a few beginners’ blunders.
“I’m sorry auntie,” she said.
My niece and her husband were staying with an ailing relative, and had left this small bundle of joy with me for the month. (Both of us had been tested as clear from the bug.)
Mona’s presence at home had disrupted my usual routine, scaring Miss Blue off her favorite spot on a corner of my desk. Gaudy-colored plastic toys and Wonder Woman figurines added new obstacles on my way to the bathroom or to the kitchen. But I had kept little Mona’s teenaged mother a long time before. Soon my grand-niece had learned to avoid leaving her toys in the hallway and pulling the cat’s tail, and she helped me dry the dishes after dinner.
Imitating the adults around us (who had heeded the guide’s signal), Mona raised her green plastic binoculars, a meager 7 by 25, to her eyes. She squinted as she adjusted the focal with her mittened hand. (For me, the bird was too close for the strength of my 8×42. I should have taken my geek nephew’s advice and bought a lightweight digital cam.)
Adjusting a focal was hard work with mittens, but I knew the exact moment her field glasses gave her a clear outline. Mona’s lips moved under the mask, parted in a wordless ooh, the air whishing in a low whisper, as she beheld, for the first time in her life, a live, real owl.
Owls had fascinated my little niece no ends, even if she hailed two generations after the first Harry Potter movie.
The bird bug had not taken in my part of the family: my sisters were immune to it, and their children, my nieces and nephew, were, too.
But this small pumpkin had erupted into a volcano of curiosity at the first sight of my bird feeders. She had opened all the books in my living room bookcase, staring at the pictures. She had nagged and nagged to be able to accompany me on this bird observation excursion (the park was not too far from my place).
Presently Mona pulled down the rim of the coordinated red knitted cap that went with the mittens, to cover her ears. (My sister had not gotten the bird bug, but she had inherited mom’s knitting skill.) That was a fault with those fancy ensemble, that littles ears were not protected against the icy kiss of the winter.
“You’re right,” I said, keeping the owl in sight. “It’s cold.”
It was about minus ten centigrade, with was nothing, especially in the sun. But the light breeze added a chill factor that brought the temperatures around minus sixteen. The owl’s voluminous layers of feathers and down would protected its gangly body from the cold. The spotted neck feathers gave the illusion of a scarf wrapped over the shoulders, while longer feathers created a pattern of bars on the chest.
Speaking of cold, I unlatched the convenient ear flaps pinned to my own layered cap. They flopped down, to my small niece’s squealing delight.
“Hah, Auntie! You look like Sherlock Holmes!” she said, giggling.
One bundled up birder a few feet up our trail sucked in his breath in an audible gurgle. I turned, my nylon parka rustling, feeling as awkward as if I had been the one noisy. The habit of getting up in the early-morning hours had made me equally reverent of the moments of silence.
It was a thirty-something man, his thick frame wrapped in a gray Canada Goose coat with a raised collar, and a striped seaman’s cap that could hide a bald spot.
The optics he was fingering were topnotch: a Nikon camera with a canon-sized objective, that warranted weight-distributing frontal harness. And in those large coat pockets would be a notebook and pen to record his sightings, unless his cell phone had the Audubon application.
(My geek nephew tried and tried to make me adopt the app instead of lugging my field book. I had humored him by exchanging my brick-sized Sibley Guide to a lighter pocket-sized edition that was easier to carry. By with my years of birding, I rarely needed to consult the book for myself.)
His age was difficult to pinpoint under his mask, because his face hesitated between a teenager’s chubbiness and an adult’s sharp planes. You could make a Hollywood career with those dark eyes and cheekbones.
But for now, those expressive eyes had locked on my niece, as if surprised to find a child here, before veering back toward the object of his curiosity, the 22-inch long Barred owl.
I recognized that kind of eager look. I prepared some apologetic words, but he had already positioned his eye to the funnel-shaped rubber ocular.
Most of the avid birders went to great lengths to spot a life bird, a bird they had never seen before. The corollary was, a genuine impatience towards beginners, or anyone susceptible to scare their prize bird away.
Which was exactly what happened a second later.
Whether because of Mona’s giggle or the man’s sucking in his breath, or else because another, unseen movement from another part of the woods had alarmed it, the barred owl decided that retreat was the better part of valor. He leapt off the branch and beat silent wings through the brush, in quest of a better resting place.
Owls had to be silent, because they could not soar like an eagle on windless, thermal-less nights, so they had to beat their wings. They had special fringed feathers that muffled the air flow noise. The special thing was, they needed to be silent not in order to surprise their rodent prey, but to be able to hear the tiny noises of a wood mice burrowing under a few inches of snow.
I followed its wavy flight through the wood until the owl settled on the highest branch of a distant tree, with too much interference to get a clear shot. It melted in the décor so well the eye lost its shape once I looked down.
I mouthed a silent sorry to the eager one.
“Ah, geeez”, the man said, pronouncing words with a raspy voice that made me wince in sympathy with his vocal chords. “And I came all the way from Toronto to get my first Barred owl!”
He was making it look like a rare bird, but Barred owls enjoyed a wide territory. He could have observed one closer to home if he had bothered.
Now, if the sore-throat man had seen a spotted owl, I would have commiserated more. The spotted owl had shared the same range, as the Barred owl, living a forested habitat feeding off arboreal mice, before man razed most forests to make place for fields. They were almost extinct here, in the east. Identifying one would bring a hoot from the birder community.
He blinked, red-rimmed chestnut eyes that could have been from jet lag or too much drinking. That was the other problem. His rasping cough, that would have sent anyone scurrying for cover, brough my attention back to him.
“Auntie, do you think he had the corvid?” Mona asked.
The pumpkin had never pronounced the name right. The horrid Covid pandemic would be slowly receding in the background once more vaccines seeped through the population, but we were not there yet; many shrank from a coughing stranger.
I expected the birder to recoil, but he just shrugged. As we all kept our distances in the wild, he was not currently masked.
“Just the sore throat,” he said.
He hoisted his heavy cam to catch up with the guide and the core knot of dedicated birders.
On the ‘Superb Owl’ day, women composed most of our group, either Superbowl ‘widows’ or real widows, like me. Or bachelors like Elaine Morris, our guide, a veteran who had found in the bird-filled woods a gentle way to heal from the traumas she endured in her tours of duty in Afghanistan.
Birders in a given region tended to aggregate, so I knew most of the others by name or by sight. Except the sore-throat foreigner, who was the sole man among us.
So we were threading the park for owls, of course, but if one failed to present itself to our gaze, there were a ton of other species wintering in the area. Sharp yellow grossbeaks, the Christmas-themed northern cardinal, gray Canada jays, blue jays provided our entertainment, along with snappy red squirrels.
As we followed the well-marked trail, Mona soon got enthralled with a playful band of black-capped chickadees, their chirpy see-mee and sudden tlocs. The seasoned birders among us ambled past her and me, because they were on the prowl for a more elusive citizens. Only the man lagged behind.
“Do you think we’ll see another barred owl?” the stranger asked.
His too-gravelly voice, a few decibels over the chickadees’ twirps, attracted my grand-niece’s attention.
Keeping my voice under the background threshold, I explained that owls, being predators, needed more space to collect their food.
“Sometimes, they need several kilometer-wide areas to roam,” I said.
“So we might not see another one?” the man asked, looking crestfallen.
Defeat added more gravel in his voice.
“Not necessarily,” I said. “This conservation park covers more than thirty square kilometers of wood and lakes, so we might find many other owls.”
Beside the huge barred owls, there were smaller species that occasionally visited the park, like the sharply contrasted boreal owl and the northern saw-whet owl, its chest marked with vertical brown and white stripes. If not, the reddish eastern screech owl was a full year resident, and the most likely to be seen in those woods.
As I mentioned the other species, he suddenly he pivoted to clear his sore throat. My ear caught the weird gurgle, again. I wondered if he was in the throes of a bad flu virus, or the “corvid”. He didn’t look red in the face nor feverish, but the knots at the corners of his mouth.
“Is there a problem?” a voice said.
Elaine had retraced her steps as soon as she heard the man coughing.
She was sturdy and broad-shouldered in her ivory goose feather coat, the straps of a heavy camping pack biting in the coat, the rim of her hood framing her square face. She had had a good marriage until after her Afghanistan tour, when one PTSD crisis landed her in a vet’s hospital.
It had been years ago; Elaine had told me it was better this way, for her loved ones. She stopped at the six-foot distance.
“Are you OK?” she said, her voice barely less raspy than the man’s.
The Canadian looked up at her, reddening.
“It’s, it’s not it, not at all,” he said. “This’ my (cough) normal voice. Now.”
“Take some water,” Mona said, earnest in her helping mood. “My auntie has a gourd.”
But the man shook his head.
“Can’t. It’s worse.”
“Why?” Mona asked, her fluted voice making her sound like a whining mocking jay.
“Because, er, it’s like having ice cubes wrecking the soft cushions inside my throat.”
Elaine raised a gloved hand to her neck, her concerned eyes peeking over her Birds of NY State green mask.
“You hurt your voice, didn’t you, Al?”
Of course, she had taken the names of the group, five bucks each (which was a really nice-price for a birding excursion in Covid times, that complemented her army pension.)
He nodded, not trusting his voice. Those ‘soft cushions’ would be his vocal chords. From the depth of the wood, a Blue Jay called, its voice was nasal and raspy.
A silent look passed between them, at this moment.
Not love, or anything sappy.
Elaine couldn’t do sappy anymore, not after seeing two members of her unit blown up by an improvised bomb meters from the truck she was driving. Not after lying awake so many nights after, jumping at the least noise and scaring her daughter and husband away.
Only birding had brought her back from the abyss. As for the foreigner, he clearly had his own demons.
“Look,” Elaine said. “I have a thermos of hot chocolate. We’ll pause in at the table a half kilometer from here.”
I knew the rest stop she spoke of. (There was also a coarse restroom and a bear-proof waste bin.)
“And,” I added, “if we’re lucky, we should meet some life birds for you there.”
Ah, birders! His eyes cleared in a moment, as if the sun had just risen.
“So, mister Al, what happened to you voice?” Mona asked, sipping from the hot cocoa mug.
We had taken one of the two tables, minding the spaces, and shared the two thermos (I always brought one hot tea thermos in winter excursions, with metal cups).
“Did a bad witch stole it, like the little Mermaid’s who couldn’t sing anymore?”
I winced. That had been one Disney movie too many. The D channel was a good babysitter, letting me go about my things, but not for extended period.
Al closed his eyes as he swallowed tiny sips of hot chocolate. Then he clacked his tongue.
“No witch stole my voice,” he said. “I did it to myself.”
Elaine tipped the thermos at arm’s length to refill his cup.
“What do you mean?” she asked, taking a sip from her own cup.
The sun played through the towering pine’s needles, covering us with bright and shady spots. The birder friends were chatting amiably at the other table.
He winked at Mona.
“I had one thing in common with the little Mermaid,” he said. “I sang, before.”
“Oooh,” Mona said, so excited she almost upset her hot cocoa cup.
It was a perfect hoot, but no barred owl answered her call.
However, Al did.
“I loved music since I was a tot, and singing, but my parents could not afford lesson. So I mostly learned by listening to radio. I grew up, work small waiter jobs, played guitar, until I met comrades from the college who were forming a hard rock band.”
“Which one?” Elaine asked.
“Boys Meet Girls,” he said.
Our guide rose an inquisitive eyebrow.
“I know, it’s a stupid name,” he said. “I was the lead singer in the band, and we managed to self-produce one DVD. Then we signed with a producer who put us on the road. Our brand of sound was wildly popular. But I sang without method, without training my voice, and that was, let’s say, hard on the vocal chords.”
Elaine’s hand went to her own throat.
“I had some throat irritation, but I thought that it was fatigue from the tour. Then, two years after, one evening in Las Vegas, my voice crashed, in the middle of a song.”
“Oh,” Mona said, rapt.
“But, didn’t that producer of yours monitored your voice?” Elaine asked.
“I guess I never asked, or he never asked. He gave me a week, but I was not even able to speak at the time. The doctor who examined me told my vocal chords were finished. As per my contract, as I wasn’t getting back, the producer found a replacement. They are still active nowadays, doing the circuit.”
“Did you get another doctor to look at you?” Elaine asked.
“Yes. Three years after I was let out of the band, I was living at my parents, finishing an accountant’s formation. My mom’s insisted I saw a doctor. He found, well, polyps on one, like a peanut-sized bulge on one chord.”
Hurray for his mother, I thought.
He took another sip, because his voice, in there telling had gone more and more rash.
“And did he direct you to the proper service?” Elaine asked, indignation in her voice. “In Canada, you do have a public health care, don’t you?”
He lifted one hand.
“Yes, but there’s a waiting time, My operation was scheduled in Montréal, but then, 2020 happened. Every non-essential surgery was postponed to make room for Covid patients. The polyp’s till here.”
He let out a sigh, then pursed his lips.
“Not ever being able to sing again, that was a nightmare. My life was over.”
“You can’t say that,” Elaine asked.
“You see, I wasn’t even a composer,” he said. “Just an interpreter. So, really, without my voice, I didn’t know what to do.”
The pine boughs rustled over our heads. I raised an eye. Blue jays perching. Then gone.
“So you found the birds,” I said, squinting to follow the blue tinged flight of Jays.
“Yes, after I got busted from the band. I had been depressed and ill, and was resting on my parent’s patio. My mom had three bird mangers, close to my long chair.
Decidedly, I would look up his mother in Montréal.
“And she put some grains in my hands. And the birds came, and more birds, like I was like a Francis of Assisi!”
Mona let out a sigh, fingering her binoculars.
“This is so cute!”
Al smiled at her.
“Yes, and I wanted to know their names. More than their names: where they went, how they lived. And I wanted to listen to them.”
How variously we came to the love of birds!
Elaine’s eyes were misting.
“Yes. I did find the birds, after Afghanistan.”
He raised his eyes in surprise.
“What happened to you kind of happened to me, in the army,” she said. “Barking orders in the dry desert climate will mess up your voice fast. Sergeants are no doctors, so they bark and bark until they are hoarse. And then they bark the next day.”
“You were a sergeant? But, you do have a fine voice,” he said. “Just a bit rough on the edges. Not like, wasted like mine.”
“Your producer was a miser,” Elaine said. “There are, in Canada and here, very good specialists who could help you like they had helped me (thanks to Uncle Sam).A surgery, and special exercises, some voice training, so the damage to my own chords were repaired.”
She put her gloved hand on her throat.
“I’m no mermaid, however,” she added, winking at Mona.
My grandniece piped in.
“But maybe you’ll get yourself a prince, one day!”
Oooh, that child! I felt my face heating up, flushing red like a northern cardinal.
But the former sergeant and the former rock star burst out laughing or, rather, hissing softly in the case of Al. The two looked quite at ease around each other, like old friends.
This time, when the pine needles rustled nearby, we looked in time to see the red mottled beast perched on a mid-level branch. It was twice as short as the Barred owl, but this Eastern Screech Owl made it up with its round yellow eyes fixed on us. Mona contained a squeal when she saw the Harry-Potter-quality tufted horns prolonging the eyebrows.
“There, auntie! The Superb Owl!”
And, maybe by fortune or because the sergeant and the rock star were busy checking if they were prince or mermaid, the red-feathered owl stayed to accept our reverent gratitude.