Dear Bird Folks,
Please take a look at this photograph and tell me what kind of bird it is. It’s been in my yard for the last few days.
– Richard, Chatham, MA
That’s a Long-eared Owl. Where do you live? I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Before I continue talking about Richard’s exciting discovery, I probably should provide everyone else with some background. Also, as is the case with most of my stories, I have a feeling this might run a bit long. Thus, I probably won’t have enough room to write much information about the owl itself until next week. But I doubt the owl will mind.
During the course of the year we are regularly asked to identify photos of odd birds. While we enjoy helping with bird identification problems, we never expect to actually see photos of something unusual. Last Monday was different. I was at work (probably wondering why bags of birdseed keep getting heavier and heavier every year), when Richard came in with a mystery photo. It was a Long-eared Owl, a bird so rare in these parts that many local birders, including Richard, had never seen one on the Cape. (BTW: Richard is ninety years old and proud of it…and he should be.)
After getting Richard’s address, I yelled to the rest of the staff that I was leaving for a “birding emergency.” You might think my employees would inquire what all the excitement was about, but nah, they were just happy to see me go. As I raced to my car I shot off a quick text message to my son, Casey. I told him to grab his camera and meet me at the attached address, but didn’t say why. Casey had never seen one of these owls either and I wanted it to be a surprise. Surprise birds are the best. Richard’s house is only about fifteen minutes from Orleans, but it took me a little extra time to get there because I got lost. For some reason the people in Chatham thought it would be cute to spell a few of their street names in an old timey style…you know, by adding an extra “e” at the end of certain words (such as “olde”). The GPS in my car had no clue what those goofy words meant and brought me to a different part of town (or towne).
When I finally found Richard’s house I parked in the driveway and walked around to the back, as per his instructions. I looked up into the first cedar tree I saw and there was the owl, exactly where Richard said it would be. (Too bad my car’s fancy GPS wasn’t as precise as Richard’s owl directions.) Two things about the bird surprised me. First of all, it was kind of small. Superficially, Long-eared Owls look very much like Great Horned Owls, but long-eareds are about a third the size of the mighty great horns. Instead of appearing to be a menacing bird of prey, this bird looked more like a fuzzy slipper sitting on a branch. And surprisingly, the owl didn’t even look at me. Wild creatures tend to keep humans in their sights, but this bird looked the other way and acted is if I wasn’t even there. (That happens to me a lot.)
I pulled out my camera and tried to take a few photos, but my little point-and-shoot couldn’t handle the dark shadows cast by the big cedar. Nuts! As I stood there trying to think of what to do, I could see Richard through the window. He was sitting in his favorite chair, watching TV and shaking his head at the national news (something a lot of people have been doing lately). I knocked on the slider to get his attention. Richard was glad to see me and invited me inside. He talked about the owl and showed me photos of his family, but neither of us mentioned the news on TV. I told Richard that I had hoped to take a photo of the owl for him, but my camera wasn’t good enough. At that moment I got a notification on my watch (yes, on my watch) saying that Casey had pulled into the driveway. Richard greeted him and took him around back to the cedar tree. Casey, who still didn’t know what was going on, looked up, saw the owl and froze in his tracks. After enjoying the moment, I told Casey about the problem I was having getting a decent photo. He put down his binoculars, picked up his big-boy camera and gave me a look as if to say, “I got this.” Great, but we still needed one more thing – a cooperative owl. The darn bird still wouldn’t look at us, so I decided to try a birders’ trick. As Casey focused, I made squeaking sounds with my lips and hoped the bird would respond (and really hoped Richard didn’t think I was blowing kisses). The squeaks worked perfectly. The previously uninterested owl immediately spun its head around and glared down at all of us. I stopped squeaking for a second, heard “click” and then Casey said, “Got it.” Nice job, kid.
A few minutes later we said goodbye to the owl, thanked Richard for generously sharing his discovery and headed home. Later that night I made a copy of Casey’s photo for Richard and then posted the picture on our Facebook page. By the next day more than 10,000 people had seen it. How about that? It took Richard over ninety years to see his very first Long-eared Owl, yet 10,000 other people were able to enjoy a picture of the very same bird almost instantly. I’m not sure what that all means, but it’s pretty cool to think about. Thanks again, Richard. I’ll tell you and everyone else more about this unusual bird next week.