by Rick Marsi, Ithaca Journal, link to original post
Hear now these words, always greeted by me with great pleasure: “Come outside. An owl is hooting.”
I heard them this week. It was nighttime. The windows were closed. On the TV, my Mets once again were in full-stumble mode. Outside, on the screen porch, facing south toward a forest, my spouse sat and let nature wash away long hours at work. Crickets chirped, as they do at this time of the year. A lazy full moon hadn’t arched its way into the sky. So the world my wife looked at was dark, save for flickering flames from a few little glass-enclosed candles.
Then it came, rolling thick, round and full down the hill, through our towering oaks, through ash leaves that were starting to turn: a deep, muffled hooting — hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoooo — a great horned owl sending out signals.
After 38 years of putting up with yours truly, my wife, Jan, knows my passion for owls. Great horned owls pull especially hard. The reason — aside from their sheer daunting presence — is that decades ago, when this column began, it began with these birds as its subject. Jan illustrated the column back then. Her painting depicted an owl peering over the lip of its nest, ear tufts perked to attention, giant eyes fixed on someone intruding.
I wrote about the eerie and magical feeling of walking the woods on a night in December and hearing great horned owls in full courtship mode, calling out to each other — this time through bare tree trunks and branches.
That first column appeared in April 1980. The previous winter, owls hooted in woods all around us. Ten years or so later, they stopped. Just like that. No more hooting. Sounds of silence rang loud in our forest.
Although gone from the woodlands surrounding my home, great horned owls still popped up on occasion. Because they nest in winter, their bulky stick nests can be seen in the forks of tall trees. One nest I watched in the mid-’90s towered over a neighborhood. In a column describing it, I wrote, “High in a tree, overlooking swing sets, yellow eyes looked out over the suburbs. These were huge raptor eyes, lumps of gold set like stones in the head of a killing machine.”
I’ve encountered these birds in the high Andes Mountains. I’ve found them in daylight, tucked within dense white pines, surrounded by crow mobs incensed at their presence, berating them loudly as they tried to sleep noontime away. I’ve encountered them perched on dead trees as I’ve floated down rivers. But, the truth is, the best great horned owl was this last one, hooting down to our porch through the night.
Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoooo. Loud and clear through the darkness. Then a pause of 10 seconds. Then again, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo-hoooo. (Click here for a web site where you play this call.) The show lasted a half-hour or more. While we sat there and listened, our thoughts didn’t dwell on the passing of time — how fast 31 years of this column had seemed to fly by. Instead, we just let those hoots wash over us, being one with our owl in the moment.
Marsi is a freelance writer from Vestal. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.