Aki and I are more than ready for spring. It’s just too late this year. Rather than being muddy, this trail is icy and solid. Above the high tide line, a three inch deep blanket of snow covers the meadow grass.
As Aki pees and poops, I spot a short eared owl. It’s flying back and forth in long swaths across the tundra. Each time it reaches the end of a swath, the owl turns and starts a new one a little closer to Aki and I.
Because we freeze into place, the owl glides closer and closer to us. After the third or four glide path, the owl is only twenty feet away. It drops one wing down and gives us a penetrating stare. Then it makes a gentle turn and flies away, only a few feet above the dead meadow grass.
What a difference ten miles makes. Yesterday, Aki and I walked on a meadow burdened down with snow. This morning, we cruise over an almost snowless riverine meadow. We aren’t the only pair cruising here. Two short-eared owls glide over the grasslands. When they spot a vole or mouse, the bank into a sharp turn, dive down and snatch their prey. In seconds they are on their way to a snag or driftwood log to eat.
One of the owls lands on the top of a stump very near the trail. It’s half-a-kilometer from us but only meters from half-a-dozen dogs and their humans. I take what I know will be a fuzzy photograph, then watch the owl resume the hunt. We continue down the trail. When we meet, I ask one of the lucky dog walkers if he knew what kind of owl he just saw. The man looks far out over the meadow where the owl was gliding, and said, “There’s an owl.” Then he told me that neither he nor his friends saw he owl while it had supped on top of a stump so near to them.
On the way back to the car we spot one of the owls flying across the river and away. The other one is trying to finish a meal while on top of a driftwood root wad. But it has to keep its eyes on a photographer, who points a long-barreled lens at the owl as he closes on it. The owl then swivels its head in the opposite direction to watch another photographer approach.
Later, I will be disappointed in the photos I took of the second owl. Many will look slightly out-of-focus, which is almost avoidable given the distance between me and the owl at the time I took them. In all the others, the owl only presents its profile as it keeps both eyes on the advancing photographers. We need to give wild things the space they need to do their jobs.