Snowy owls have been much in the news of the forest these days. Seeing a front-page photo of the impressive bird in a recent Cook County News Herald and knowing these owls come down south of the border for our munchies enlivened desire to see one for myself.
So as a newly certified master naturalist, I wanted to log a sighting to add more weight to my new credential. But more to the point, I wanted to be in the awesome presence of a creature so unlike myself and so eminently equipped and skilled to survive in this harsh climate. I wanted my chance with one of the lords of life.
Well, I was not to be denied this near winter (and mild, snow-sparse autumn).
Out for a walk on the trail to my cabin off the Gunflint Trail, I went to check on a friend’s cabin, which required a walk down a steep driveway the top of which overlooked his cabin and revealed a broad swath of the lake through the filigree of leaf-bare forest.
As I began my descent, my heart stopped, for clearly down near the cabin, though a fair distance away, in the bare choir of the forest, a distinctly white shape with black markings seized my attention.
A snowy owl — there as if a shaft of sunlight singled it out for my wonder. I froze.
Then I chided myself for being without camera for this once-in-a-lifetime shot. I thought how my photo would have fared in wildlife contests for calendar shots or how many hits it would have scored on YouTube, or how many likes it would have triggered on my Facebook page. I could have gone big, I lamented.
But regret aside, I was determined at least to see this marvel close-up.
With the stealth of a starving wolf, I sidled down the driveway, careful not to set a stone a-roll, the object of my quest ever closer at hand and ever more undeniably the Snowy Owl, for sure, true to shape, size and colorings.
My ears felt the pounding of my heart. I dared not breathe. But within a hundred feet of where I thought I would find the owl, I had to round the garage, which blocked my sight of the owl. I scurried around the garage and searched tree tops for the white wonder. I spun around and around and around again. Nowhere to be found. Where was this elusive snowy owl? How was it hiding from my view? Had it flown away?
Surely I had rounded the garage quickly enough to have at least seen it winging away and heard the woof of lifting wing. No snowy owl, no sight, no sound.
Disappointment burbled up through this vaporous loss.
And then recognition, for in my spinning, I had gathered in the hard truth: An antique street lamp topped with a white, translucent lens, oval-shaped, was my Snowy Owl. And the black markings? Nothing but the overlay of forest filigree.
I chuckled to realize I had played a joke on myself. By seeing only what I so much wanted to see, my urgent observation had outrun reason.
And that realization led me to wonder now how many times I saw only what I wanted to see, and having done so, how many times my joke was on someone who did not laugh.