For the Birds Radio Program: Serendipity
One of the thrilling moments in birding is when you head out in search of one wonderful bird and not only see it, but also see something utterly unexpected. When I was in Costa Rica, Kevin Easley, our tour guide, sitting in the front of our bus, noticed a Smooth-billed Ani, a species we hadn’t seen yet, in the tall grass on the side of the road. He had the bus driver stop so he could jump out to see where it was. It skulked out of the way, but while he was searching, he reached for balance against an old fence post, now little more than a hollowed-out stump, and when he glanced down, he saw a pair of eyes looking up at him—he’d chanced upon the day roost of a Tropical Screech-Owl.
So we all piled out of the bus and one by one got to peek inside the stump. From the outside it looked just like any old rotten stump, but it made a perfect secret shelter for the little owl, who looked like a twin of my education screech-owl, Archimedes. In all of the United States and Canada there are three species of screech-owls: Eastern, Western, and Whiskered. But tiny little Costa Rica, barely the size of West Virginia, has four species: Pacific, Tropical, Bare-shanked and Vermiculated Screech-Owls. I’m not at all sure I’d have been able to identify it without Kevin, at least not without disturbing it which I’d not have been willing to do, but his first glance told Kevin exactly which screech-owl it was. I took several photos, but because the bird was at the bottom of the stump, not only blending in well but also in shadows and darkness, and because it had sensibly closed its eyes, the photos are not the easiest to decipher—you have to look at them exactly right in order to see the bill and figure out how the face is positioned. The eyes are opened a slit—owls are perfectly capable of seeing well when their eyes are partially or mostly closed.
What is serendipity for a birder is not necessarily equally lucky for the bird, and that’s especially true of owls. Birders flocked to northern Minnesota two years ago to see the huge number of Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls that had flooded in because the vole population had crashed in north-central Canada, but a lot of those owls got killed by cars–many, ironically, by cars driven by birders who were celebrating their good luck in seeing the owls. Sometimes photographers who luck into finding an owl bait it with fake or petstore mice, exposing the poor bird to salmonella or worse and essentially training it to spend more time by roadsides where owls are exceptionally vulnerable. These birds have exquisitely sensitive hearing, but their facial disks focus that hearing directly in front of them. A Great Gray Owl can hear a mouse buried under 18 inches of snow 20 or 30 yards away, but is so focused on it that it can’t hear the cars and trucks thundering toward it from the side.
But the Tropical Screech Owl roosting in a tree stump hadn’t been drawn there by people, and we were all very quiet as we peeked in. Those of us who took photos all had our flashes turned off, so we didn’t bother the little predator very much, and as soon as we were done gawking, we tiptoed away and rode off. I’m sure it breathed a sigh of relief when we disappeared, but overall that wasn’t much more of a disturbance than a phone ringing in the middle of the night and the caller hanging up before the second ring—it wakes you up, and you might have a little trouble getting back to sleep, but in the overall scheme of things is a minor irritant, not a serious event. It makes me sad that usually the best we humans can be for the birds we love is a minor irritant. That moment when I peeked at the screech owl felt like a moment of grace for me, and I sure wish it could have been the same for the little bird.