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.Continue reading