Science and Art attempt to capture Nature, Nature responds…

The owls adopted me soon after i came to the outback down toward Ka Lae. It started while building a coffee shack to work out of while putting up the components of a small farm. No humans had lived on this parcel since WWI and very few, perhaps 30, had come to the larger area of about 60 square miles over all that time. So although there were plenty of signs of the previous inhabitants, walls, corrals, heiaus, and foundations, the area was still fairly wild and overgrown, kept in check only by the cattle, the ranchers, and let’s not forget the mongooses and the occasional fires.

During my years at sea my eyes had learned to pick up on tiny signs, diving birds, swirls, riffles, different colored patches in the water, cloud patterns for weather forecasting, etc, but that knowledge did not transfer to the creatures of the pastures and nearby woods. The background environment was entirely different and i just wasnt familiar with either the critters or their habits. But that changed fairly quickly learning by example from some of the locals who were pretty serious hunters. I learned what to look for. i learned to keep my eyes open and my gaze moving all the time. Didn’t help that i am seriously nearsighted and the cataracts were getting worse all the time.

The first owl i saw up close came gliding right down the length of the greenhouse after work had stopped for the day, the boys were all gone and the quiet had returned. I followed it to an old dead tree with two large holes where branches had broken off about 20 feet up down in a small bowl shaped valley near where i had found graves when first exploring. So i knew where it lived and resolved to leave it alone. There was a 4 foot long honeycomb draped along the backside of the tree as well. A month later i was amazed to see an all-white male with an almost 4′ wingspread, and a pale solid tawny colored slightly smaller female come out of the tree together. The tree was about 2′ in diameter and musta been near completely hollow.

Over time I learned their individual calls, their clicks, and to call back, both mimicking them and developing my own call to identify where i was to them. The third year the rains returned to this desert, and there was an explosion of mice, once seeing five at the same time. The owls had a literal field day, plenty of food, and that year there was so many young that once i saw seven circling at the same time, getting four in a photograph as they whirled above me. Several of the interactions opened my eyes in ways that were entirely unexpected. The first was being out on when the moon was high and near full with the moonlight coming through their translucent wings absolutely glowing. So i went out the next night again, walking downhill 100′ from their tree, calling, glancing around, hoping to see and get another photo, and i happened to look down. There directly in front of my shadow was theirs, hovering, matching my pace step for step, leading me on, letting me know exactly where it was and that i was being watched too. A couple weeks later the moon went dark, but i would still go out looking, hoping… until one evening not yet quite dark a little one appeared directly in front of me, chest high, like dancing in the air at a distance of about 3 or 4 feet, his eyes searching my face. It stayed there for about 15 seconds, hard work flying and not going anywhere, not gliding.

Over time I took hundreds of photgraphs with the celphone camera that i usually had with me. Most of the photos were taken in that almost dark an hour before sunrise or just after sunset. It was rare to see them in the day, a once in a while thing. Mostly i had to learn how to squeeze as many photons out of each photo as possible since most were nearly entirely black. And playing with the pixels produced some unexpected results.

There were two in the next years hatch, had seen them several times, and over the course of a week they revealed themselves often, one morning circling together just above me until the the giant “grandfather” i called him, came over and sat in a tree ~10′ above me and just watched, letting me know that these were his. Finally all three sat in the tree and all four of us just looked at each other for awhile. Several days later in the late afternoon the two small ones came over and circled the christmas berry tree that gives us shade where we cook and eat. So i called a few times, and they raced around the tree chasing each other, round and round and round. i called and called and counted 12 times circling before they broke it off.

All the while i tried to capture some of the magic of this growing connection, usually without much success, taking hundreds and hundreds of photos with only a few worth keeping to show others. Sometimes i just gave up with the camera knowing that the experience was more incredible than a photo could record, and that it was better experiencing the event than trying to record it. It certainly was more fun.

The intensity would wax and wane, sometimes i was buried in computer work and would all but stop going down to their place in the evenings and mornings, and often they would come up and sit just outside the window and call and call. Sometimes the contact would die off and later resume. Often i was the one to disconnect. But the relationship remained amazing, one time after being at sea for several months and going down near the tree that first evening after returning and calling, one came right out instantly and circled repeatedly.

My work turned to focus on completing the part of the greenhouse where we lived, having gone years without walls on the larger part of it. After putting in most of three walls on the shop, i found a place to enlarge and print out some of the images, just about life sized, and proudly taped them up on the glass of exterior walls or on some of the shoji screens in other parts. And although the initial images had been picked because they expressed the motion and sometimes the personality of the critters, it was soon clear that they were but pale reminders of the individual animals in flight. The science and the art of photographic imaging did not really capture the nature of the creature. And over the week i lost the feeling that these images were very special.

Until the other night. i was awakened around midnight to the calling of this years inhabitant of the tree nest, from the third or fourth generation or maybe from the seventh clutch. Had fallen asleep with the tv and the lights on and it took a minute to come to, but i kept hearing a long low call, not the alarum call, not the screech of the hunter… So i went to an open window and it was right there 20 feet away, looking in directly at the life sized owl images, backlit translucent silhouettes on the other windows. Calling and calling. So now Nature was responding to Science… The whole thing had come full circle… He came back and circled twice that same night as well. Whoodathunkit ?

3 Replies to “Science and Art attempt to capture Nature, Nature responds…”

  1. Nature responds… Yes, that is exactly it. How often we miss the response, the messages from the non-human that are not in words but still messages, responses, salutations. Possibly even jokes?
    Thank you for this history of a deepening relationship with the kings and queens of the night. I think you are possibly an apprentice owl shaman!
    Your photos are beautiful and eerie and loving. Thank you for sharing all of this. I learned some useful things to understand my own neighborhood owls a bit better!

  2. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story, Richard. I love it when I hear the call of a hoot owl that lives in the nearby woods. But I’ve never seen this owl. Sometimes I can hear another owl reply. One night I tried to answer, but the attempt was so poor I never tried again. I imagined the owl thinking “What on earth was that?”
    I think Michelle is right, you must be an owl whisperer. Perhaps we all feel more closely connected to different animals. I don’t talk to birds but I admire them and love seeing them in my garden. I “talk” to plants more easily!
    Your owls seem to like looking at you as much as you have been looking at them. To watch them over years certainly seems to be a remarkable gift. And the owls interest in your pictures…that is remarkable. Isn’t it amazing how deeply life connects to life!

    1. Thanks both of you. The connection to the owls goes back to childhood when once my father stopped the family wagon, got out, drove off a pack of crows who were in the middle of killing a little screech owl. They had already broken one of its wings and pecked out an eye. He brought it back the car, had one of us hold it, and we brought it back to the house. He then splinted the wing, and we put it in a topless cage about 2’x3′ down in the large room where i lived with 2 of my brothers.

      Over time i tried to communicate with various hoots and whistles and at the same time it began to heal, first the eye, followed by exploratory stretching of the wing. Later, after removing the splint, there were wing assisted jumps, not flying really but longer and longer hops. The little owl maybe 9 or 10″ tall then began following me up the 28 steps to the shower each morning, hopping along the banister for all three stories, waiting for me, and then following me back down. When he got back in shape enough to start flying around the house we knew it was time to let him go. That was really the first time i had an idea about real two-way connections with “wild” critters.

      There are many owls that “hoot”, all with different calls. There is a great website maintained by Cornell Ornithology Dept. with many different calls of the avian species. Over the years my interest, and the connnection have grown. Here’s a couple stories. There are many more…

      After settling north of Boston, and building a home in the woods in the early 70s, i found that a Great Horned owl pair returned each winter to a nearby parcel of tall trees. Over the years i too tried to emulate their calls enough that they would return a call, but let’s not say that it was real communication. Years later was out one evening for a last smoke and hearing the male, called back to him. After a spell he replied but much closer maybe only 100′ away. It was absolutely pitch dark so no way really to tell. I continued calling every so often – the rhythm or cadence, and silent space between is important. Decided to light another smoke. and as the match lit up the area, he was swooping in directly in front of me about 5′ away, feet forward, wings spread wide flaring out. Not only was he curious, he was going to land on my face. i took a quick step back and he slid off to one side, both us more than surprised. So musta said the wrong word, i guess the lesson mebbe more practise needed or be careful what you wish for, .

      A few years later i stopped along the highway where one had been hit. When i got it home the outstretched wings measured just short of 60″ and the claws would easily grasp a 3 1/2″ orange, like the feet on an old bathtub. More to come…

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