For several weeks in early spring, the morning dog walk took me past the owl tree.
Every day, I stopped for a minute or two, just long enough to say hello to a pair of great horned owlets who had emerged from the nest in March and were clinging to the branch of a huge silver maple in Como Park.
On blustery days, they huddled together. On sunny days, the bigger owlet ventured farther up the branch. They were too young to fly, too old for the nest. So morning and night, there they were, out on the branch. Until one morning when I crossed the park and saw one of the owlets on the ground.
It was the bigger one, who probably had tried to fly before it was quite able. It was standing at the base of the silver maple, looking like a soft fuzzy football. The expression in those round eyes looked like defiance and bewilderment. On the branch above, its sibling, alone for the first time, looked bereft.
And yes, I realized I was anthropomorphizing. But, man, oh man. Owlet on the ground! At risk from the park coyotes and foxes, not to mention random dogs.
I held Rosie’s leash a little tighter and did not venture any closer. What to do? I did what any self-respecting journalist would do: I pulled out my camera, and I took its picture.
A very public nest
In January, when the adult owls chose the cavity in the maple tree as their nest, they probably figured they had found a quiet, secluded spot to raise their young.
In years past, they had nested in the pine trees of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Japanese Garden, but this year the garden was being refurbished, and the owls might have been driven out by all the noise. The maple is along one of the park’s lesser paths, one that is not plowed in winter. For months, the owls had peace. But by spring, when the owlets were ready to emerge, the snow had mostly receded, and joggers and dog walkers again were passing by.
It didn’t take long for people to notice the little birds, who were stuck on the branch just above our heads. I first saw them early on a morning in late March. A neighbor was aiming his camera at the tree, and Rosie and I hung back, not wanting to intrude. But he beckoned, and pointed. One owlet was out on a branch. The other one peered out of the nest, only his round eyes and little ear tufts visible.
One tree over, the mother watched us and did not move.
Raptor Center to the rescue
After taking the fallen owlet’s picture, I dragged Rosie away and called my neighbor, who volunteers at the Raptor Center. She made a call, and within a few minutes, Julia Ponder, the center’s executive director, arrived. She wore thick blue leather gloves for protection, and she knew just what to do. Slowly and steadily, she advanced toward the owlet, which puffed up until it looked as big as a turkey and began clacking at her fiercely. In one swift move, Ponder grabbed it by the legs, lifted it up, and cradled it in her arms. She checked it for injuries, but it was fine, just mad.
By now, a coterie of neighbors had gathered, many with cameras, and she let us look at the bird, which continued to clack. Up close, it no longer looked quite so soft and fuzzy; you could see how sharp that beak was, and how lethal the claws, which are long and curved — the better to pierce its prey with.
A long “thumb” helps the owl to tightly grip a branch. Its eyes were perfectly round, and intensely yellow. The mother hooted a warning from nearby, and Ponder brought the owlet over to a tree and settled it on a low branch.
The silver maple branches were too high for her to reach without a ladder, so this would have to do. The owlet puffed up briefly once more, just to show who was boss, and then it carefully began making its way higher into the tree.
A week passed before I returned to the park, and when I got to the silver maple, both owlets were gone. My sharp sense of worry surprised me: Had they both fallen? Had a coyote gotten them? A neighbor happened by, and he pointed to a long belt of trees that edged the golf course. Last time anyone had seen them, he said, they were over there — they either had grown big enough to fly or had been moved.
Day by day, they were heading deeper up the tree line, toward the Japanese Garden, and home.
A new generation
One night in early September, walking the dogs just after sunset, I rounded a bend in the park and there, on the low branch of a hackberry tree, sat an owl.
It was silhouetted perfectly against the darkening sky, its shape, its ear tufts so well-defined that it looked like a black cardboard cutout.
While I fumbled with my phone — a picture! I need a picture! — the bird glided silently from the branch and flew off into the night. I was sorry I had spooked it; I was sorry it had flown. But I was glad to have seen it: The owls are still here.
With any luck, there will be owlets in the spring.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor/books. On Twitter: @StribBooks