For the Birds Radio Program: Mark Alt's Owl Story
Every now and then on For the Birds I ask listeners to send in stories about their own birding encounters. Mark Alt doesn’t live in our listening area, but he sent in a fascinating story which he calls “Confessions of a night-time feeder watcher.”
My feeders bring me much joy and regular surprises. Last year I changed my motion sensor lights to red bulbs and have enjoyed being able to see what’s visiting my yard for a quick bite to eat. I have been rewarded with seeing a Grey Fox and a pair of Flying squirrels last year. The eve before Thanksgiving this past weekend, I turned off all the interior lights in my kitchen and peered out through the window , to see a large white rabbit sitting under the fly-thru feeder my grandfather made for me in 1965. It sat, barely discernible in the ruby glow of the light that washed over the area. I got my scope and binoculars and checked it out, perhaps a Snowshoe Hare? A tame rabbit? The potential fantasy of a white rabbit took my mind quickly off to Lewis Carroll, Grace Slick (like, I don’t do that anymore, man), and my favorite, the monstrous white rabbit of Monty Python fame.
My senses returned, and based upon the size of the rabbit (nearly as big as my dog), and the length of its ears, I quickly surmised it was a White-tailed Jackrabbit. It is truly nocturnal and is out every night from about 9 PM till sunup. Yes, whenever sleep eludes me, I go peer out the window, so I know this to be true.
When the time delay turned off the red spotlights, the quality of the ambient light reminded me of gazing through my grandmother’s cobalt glass mugs. The rabbit left, I then heard my resident Great Horneds, one alto and one a deep bass, amorously duetting from the White Pines behind my place. “I love You - Beaucoup”. But I digress. You see, there I was passively sitting, listening to the Bubos in love, retinas yearning for a contrast or movement that could BE something, when I saw IT There, I began to detect, 40 feet away, in the misty glow of an overcast night, a small light shape perched on top of my Grandfathers feeder. The binoculars revealed some texture, its shape appeared amorphous, then I made it out, Flying Squirrels were caught out in the open!
Not good, with Owls on the prowl. It was 4:30 AM, and there I sat with my scope and binos and peered at the Squirrels for about twenty minutes, amazed that they didn’t move an inch, when I suddenly realized, this was far too light for my pair of Rockies, this must be a Saw-whet Owl caught out in the open, I have read of the predatory exploits of Great Homeds, that they apparently single-handedly eradicated all released Aplomado Falcons systematically over a 2 week period down in the SW, so I deduced this was a never before-seen “possum” tactic the Saw-whet was using to prevent its big cousins from displacing it in the food chain. It was lying flat on its back, motiuonless, with spread eagled wings, I have never seen anything like it! My excitement was so overwhelming, I decided Shirley, my loving wife, would just love to see this. I ran to her and shook her gently, but in the excitement of the moment, I could only manage to stammer out “Come, Owls, bird feeder, kitchen”, then scampered quickly back to my sentry post at the window. The bedroom door slammed and I heard her say mutedly in the distance, “It’s 5 am, Mark, go to sleep!”
Now, I quickly realized that I was wrong, that it was Sarah, my loyal birding companion, my 16 year old doting daughter, that REALLY needed to share this important discovery of mine. I felt like the Crocodile Hunter, Marlin Perkins, and his helper Jim all rolled up into one dynamo of a night-watching birder, about to leap onto the back of the White Rhino, and I wanted her to see me as I truly was, her dad, the hero! Sarah is a great person, but being 16 is a hard thing at times, and the tirade I invoked from her this night shook the rafters. She wouldn’t be coming to see my great discovery. I heard footsteps, my wife, awoken by the ruckus, Shirley stumbled into the kitchen, bent, peered through the scope, and said, “What are you looking at? All I see is a patch of snow on the roof of a feeder?”
uhhhhh.........yahhhh..................o. k..............uhhh sorry, Hon.
It took me 15 more minutes of stealthy observations before I realized she was right. I tried to sleep , but adrenaline takes longer than that to run its course, so I read and had a light breakfast, with the Discovery channel on for background. Walter Mitty is alive and well and living in my head.
That was Mark Alt, and I’m Laura Erickson speaking For the Birds.