24 December 2019
For ardent believers, today is the lead up to a portentous event. To those less ecumenically inclined it is the last chance to jostle cheek by jowl in overheated stores to load up on gobs of "stuff," all the while serenaded by bland renditions of Christmas music repeated ad nauseam. For others it is time to put the finishing touches to the baking, perhaps; to make sure the lights on the tree are winking properly.
And for Miriam and me? It is a day to do what we do best, go out and discover nature. And so, armed with a thermos of coffee and two blueberry muffins, we set off to explore Ontario's snowy wonderland. Our primary quest was to find that spectre of the north, that bird so mystical to many, so remote for those who do not live in a northern land, the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Every year we are accorded the rare honour of being in the presence of these regal creatures who spend a few short months with us. Yet most of the birders in the entire world will never see one.
Today we found two. Our first bird was a wonderful white male, hunkered down along a row of conifer saplings, oblivious to the cold, conserving energy and scanning its surroundings, alert for any sign of prey.
Mostly it remained still, other than for moving its head in a 270 degree swivel, but after an hour or so of observation it shifted a few metres.
Thanks to modern technology we were able to text our friends who might be interested to join us to view the owl, and Francine and Jim who were out and about themselves took up the offer, and joined us in the ecstasy of the moment.
Miriam and I had already enjoyed the bird for over an hour and we left to return home for lunch. Jim and Francine stayed behind to wallow in the pleasure a while longer.
We were not more than three kilometres down the road when Francine texted to advise that they had discovered a female close by. What to do but turn around and go to see it!
Now we have seen these birds many times. In fact at a rough mental count, I have seen well over two hundred of them; Miriam somewhat less, but many nevertheless. Furthermore some of our encounters have been of the close and personal kind, with birds mere metres away from us.
What drives us to go and search for them over and over again? Why do we get the itch to do so every winter? What is it that spurs Miriam to say, "Let's go and look for owls?"
I think that Peter Høeg defines it best in his novel Smilla's Sense of Snow. "Understanding snow," he says, "is like listening to music. To describe it is like explaining music in writing." And so it is with Snowy Owls. Don't even try to explain it, don't bother to understand it, don't attempt to rationalize it. Just enjoy the experience over and over again. For me that's about as spiritual as it gets.