Sarah and I have spent some of the best times of our lives on the island of Newfoundland the last couple of summers. While every inch of that rugged island speaks to me in a way no other land does, the seabird colonies off the Avalon Peninsula are particularly special places to us. One of those, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, is under threat. A planned development would illuminate one of the dark sections of beach on the mainland adjacent to the four islands of the reserve.
Whenever I go out on a short walk in the woods (or any other habitat) I usually have a particular thing in mind that I’m hoping to see. It could be a certain flower that should be blooming, a bird that should be in the area, or even a black bear or something else grandiose. The wonderful thing about this habit is that I never see the thing that occupies my mind’s “to-see” list. Never. And that’s perfectly fine with me. The most interesting finds in your life will always be the ones unlooked for.
So, I went out to the woods (Woldumar Nature Center) for a couple hours today hoping to see a few of the first spring wildflowers our area has to offer. All I ended up seeing was a Cooper’s Hawk fighting a pair of Barred Owls over possession of a big garter snake. Yeah. Didn’t see that coming.
It started off on the right foot. I found a patch of white violets and a sprinkling of spring beauties. (You see, I lied. Sometimes I do find what I’m looking for.) Then I got distracted by a Mourning Cloak Butterfly and started prancing after it to get a photo. You will notice that there is no photo of a Mourning Cloak here. That’s because just as it alighted on the leaf litter, the shadow of some giant, apocalyptic bird crossed the ground over the spot where it was resting. I thought “red-tailed hawk” to myself, but I should have known better. It was right over my head, flapping through the forest and there wasn’t even a whisper of a sound. Owl. It landed on a branch not far away and I admired it with the binoculars for a few moments before deciding to snap a picture. There are no pictures of this owl here either. That’s because just as I was about to snap one, a cacophony of Accipiterine anger filled the air. I spotted another barred owl coming in with a crazed cooper’s hawk flying just above it, pecking at its back. The second owl landed a few yards from the first, while the hawk landed a few more yards away.
I lied again. This is the first owl, but I didn't get this shot until later.
After a few more minutes passed, the first owl took off to a vantage point 8 or 10 trees away. Second owl followed, and immediately the insane hawk starting squealing and followed. And so it went, for about an hour. At some point in there I noticed the second owl was holding a relatively large garter snake. It moved the snake from bill to talon a couple times, then ultimately disappeared and returned moments later, snakeless. I’m presuming the nest is nearby and there were some owlets looking forward to shredded snake tonight.
I’m not sure what the hawk thought he was doing. I know this guy and know his nest site. It’s about 200 yards away. Seems too far to be this uptight about territory. Maybe he wanted the snake? There are two problems with that theory. One, there were garter snakes everywhere on the forest floor. No need to fight two owls twice your size to get one. A foot-long snake literally crawled over my shoe while I was trying to be still and watch this drama unfold. Two, the woods was also full of chickadees which most cooper’s hawks think are far tastier than snakes. My theory is the hawk was nuts.
All the while I couldn’t help but marvel at how aware owls are. I’ve never seen another bird that seems as calmly and thoroughly observant of its surroundings. Every tiny movement or sound I made was noticed by the owls. They also kept a very close eye on the hawk. The second owl never lost concentration on the snake through the whole ordeal. It was keenly aware of all of us: the other owl, the hawk, the snake, me, and the chipmunk 20 yards behind me under some leaves. The bird probably knew where Jimmy Hoffa and D.B. Cooper were, but I didn’t care to ask. I don’t usually like to be a player in the nature dramas I witness, but with owls there is no choice.
How’d everyone’s day end up? The snake undoubtedly had the worst experience. The hawk had to be frustrated. I don’t know what he wanted, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t get it. The owls seemed to think it was just another day in the woods. And me? I remembered why I like to watch birds. I remembered why I go to the woods. An hour passed like a minute. I felt like the most insignificant of characters in nature’s grand play. And that is a beautiful thing to feel.