Barred Owl: Broken Bough

John Williams

Summer Lake, United States

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This Barred Owl has become legend in the city of Bend, Oregon. He showed up mid winter on the Deschutes River not far from The Old Mill outdoor shopping mall. The photo on this page was taken directly across the river from Anthony’s Fish House, Victoria Secret, REI, Banana Republic, et al. The first ones to see him, of course, were the most dedicated of the local birders—The Big Year crowd, such compulsive/obsessives that they might find themselves scanning tree tops at a friend’s funeral. Once posted on COBOL, Central Oregon Birders On Line, small groups of birders began making daily pilgrimages to Farewell to Bend Park to check out the owl and post updates on his status.

“The Barred Owl was on a lamp post near the playground.”
“The Barred Owl was by the dry pond just down from the condos.”
“The Barred Owl was on the second dead pine tree next to the Les Schwab Ampi-theater.”
“The Barred Owl was on the sign at the Fly Casting pond.”
“Is there more than one Barred Owl?”

For my part, I posted a photo of the owl on Flickr titled The Ubiquitous Owl based on its uncanny talent for making itself conspicuous. No matter that I would vow each day I went out to avoid taking any more photos of the Barred Owl. Inevitably someone would see my long lens, tap me on the shoulder and point out that they just saw an owl “over there.” This was a first—a wildlife subject which appeared to be stalking me.

Oh what a cooperative owl he was — letting people approach with short lenses (cell phone cameras included), capturing mice in plain view, posing along the busy walkway as crowds gathered — seeming almost to relish his growing celebrity status.

“What kind of owl is it?”
“A Barred Owl.”
“A Barn Owl?”
“No! Barred-d-d Owl! Bard, as in Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare?”

Clearly this was an owl of the people; not the exclusive property of the birding elite. Next came the media, print and TV. The owl was being facebooked, tweeted, and youtubed. Friends who knew I took pictures of birds were now able to interject into our conversation, “Did you hear about the owl?” I thought of the infamous “socialist” line in Newsweek translated to “We are all birders now!”

Early one morning while waiting to capture Mergansers flying down the river I noticed a fellow on the opposite bank climbing up the some rocks with his camera—a short lens on a SLR. Above him perched on the pinnacle of a large boulder was the celebrity owl. Through my 400mm lens I took pictures of him approaching within four feet of his unflinching subject. He had this huge beaming smile on his face as he photographed the owl from every conceivable angle. His girl friend down on the trail seemed thoroughly delighted with the proceedings.

As a live-and-let-live kind of guy, I knew it would be a bad idea to post the pictures on the local list serve. The owl was perfectly capable of taking wing any time it wished. Nonetheless I was not the only witness. That evening one post said that the now infamous photographer had actually boasted of touching the owl. Others decried what was tantamount in their mind to the harassment of wildlife. Park signs stating the precise distance spectators were to remain from the Barred Owl were proposed. A OSU biologist stated unequivocally that this owl was either sick, injured or both. A careful on site evaluation the following day necessitated a complete retraction of his diagnosis. The owl was perfectly healthy. Regardless, the worm had turned. The owl was now at the center of controversy. The lawmakers would not be far behind.

Alas, we had all forgotten one of the great governing principles of the natural world—everything is always changing. After a week of warmer days as the sun shone longer and longer, the frost went out of the ground. The raptors that had been hunting for voles in the overgrown riparian zones along rivers, ditches and canals had dispersed. There rodents everywhere—in farm fields and low lying woods. My bet is that our friendly neighborhood owl, who is long gone, has reverted back to his old wild self now that hunger and necessity no longer forces him into our company. We provided a great shield from the thuggish town jays and crows as he gleaned rodents to his heart’s delight from the man-made natural habitat (oxymoron) along our river walk. Come January 2014 I’ll be anxiously awaiting his return.

Canon 7D, EF 400mm f5.6 L, AV, 1/1000, f5.6, ISO 500, no flash

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