I have seen few large wild birds in their natural habitat and my encounter with a snowy owl was an exception. It was late at night one winter when I was sitting in a car with a friend, chatting and enjoying the view of the frozen river and the white snow around us when a snowy owl landed, seemingly out of nowhere, on the boardwalk a few feet away from the car. It sat on snow, eying its surroundings, its magnificent head turning, its bright yellow eyes blinking occasionally.
For several minutes, it just sat in the cold snow, its wings not tucked in but trailing on the snow. When it finally moved, it was in a waddling walk, one wing tracing a shallow trail in the snow beside it. Clearly, the bird was not made for walking. After walking a bit, it flapped its wings and rose a few meters in air no higher than the top of a lamppost that cast its white glow into the cold air, then settled back on the ground as if exhausted and lost after a long journey from some snowy mountainous region in the Maritimes. Perhaps it had come across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, buffered by the recent snowfall and biting winds.
The owl was a splendid creature with its brown-and-black-tipped white feathers that made it look like it had silvery tufts tucked into its plumage. We assumed it might have hurt its wing and had sought respite on our island, finding shelter under the Hillsboro bridge. Before long, another owl, almost a pure white, landed a few feet farther than the first, but that one did not stay, launching over the frozen inlet and disappearing under the bridge before long. We surmised that the birds were mates and were seeking refuge because one of them had been hurt.
My companion, ever concerned, ever helpful, stepped out to see how badly hurt the bird on the ground might be, approaching it warily. He was concerned the bird might be attacked by a fox that had, only a short time earlier, prowled along the river’s edge on some nocturnal mission. I warned him to take care because owls, after all, are wild birds and predators, their small hooked beaks sharp, their long and threatening talons camouflaged under feathered feet. My friend stopped a little more than an arm’s length from the owl, thinking its wing broken, and for a split second, man and bird stood under the same circle of light, creating a frosty mist in the crisp night air. One second then the bird gathered its wings and lifted them, drawing ever so slightly closer to the man, hovering for but a moment, before it pulled away and lifted into the air, flying after its pair to find shelter under the bridge. Did the bird think it was being threatened? Would it have attacked the man? Perhaps the trailing wing was merely a ploy to attract prey. It could have spotted the fox and planned on abducting it, but encountering a creature larger than it could possibly lift across the icy inlet, it changed its mind and decided to retreat instead. We guessed it must have been that because it spread its majestic wings, longer across than my friend was tall–and he is not a small man–and swooped away, gliding like a white kite in the night without the slightest hint of an injury. It disappeared under the bridge, invisible in the shadows.
It was on the news, the next day, that a pair of snowy owls had taken up residence under the Hillsboro bridge, and after a few more days of being in the forefront of unusual events of interest only to the locals that long winter, the birds were found to have abandoned their temporary shelter. It was my first encounter with a bird that has long enthralled me because of its beauty and wildness and its symbolism as the wisest of creatures. It was more magnificent than any photograph could ever depict and, in making its choice to leave us, undoubtedly wise in choosing the wintry wilderness where it was born and, without human interference, will hopefully live out its life.
©Cindy Lapeña, 2015