On the wing: A barn owl yarn

  • Article by: JIM WILLIAMS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2012 - 2:13 PM

Sightings of the nocturnal barn owl aren't an everyday occurrence, and sometimes they come with a story.

Abandoned buildings are a good spot to look for elusive barn owls.

The barn owl was a great find. The spooky woman in the window was even better.

We were in western Nebraska, driving to Estes Park in Colorado, and doing what we do on road trips: We stop for birds and abandoned buildings.

As we pulled into the overgrown driveway we could see stucco peeling from the sides of the house. The front door hung cockeyed and the windows were blank holes.

Except for the window where we saw the profile of a woman. She was looking away, a motionless stare. Well, I wasn't going to get out of the car until the obvious question was answered.

A bit self-consciously, we used binoculars to look at her. Her hair, forehead, nose, mouth, chin -- were all perfectly formed by shards of glass stuck in the window frame.

Now I got out with my camera.

Working my way around the house I caught a flash of motion. It was a barn owl swinging swiftly over a grassy field, pursued by a meadowlark.

I switched to a long lens as quickly as I could, and faced the barn just in time to see the owl pose briefly on a window sill, then disappear into the ruins of the building. I managed one shutter snap.

This was my fourth barn owl sighting. There was one in Vancouver, one in Texas, and one in Minnesota that also involved a woman, one not made of glass.

Several years ago, rumor spread among local birders that a pair of barn owls was nesting near Hastings. To avoid disturbing the birds, their location was a secret.

Some of us, however, went to look -- for what, we weren't sure. Barn owls are nocturnal. The nest would be in a structure. Clues would be impossible to find.

Parked along a gravel road to discuss Plan B, our clue walked from a driveway behind us and marched in our direction. We had no doubt about what was going to happen.

Politely but firmly the woman told us to go away and stay away. She was the owl hostess, the owl protector. We left.

I had plans to drive to Minnesota's southeastern corner the next morning to look for bobwhite quail. My route would take me within a couple of miles of the forbidden farm.

I bought a bouquet of flowers. I drove into the farmyard. I found the lady of the farm in her back yard. I offered her the flowers, explaining that this was an apology for any ill will the previous night's encounter might have produced.

She hesitated, then accepted the flowers.

There was another moment of hesitation, and then she said, "The owls are nesting in the barn. They have three youngsters. Would you like to see them?"

Never underestimate the power of flowers.

Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at woodduck38@gmail.com. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.

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