Owls can be tricky. They’re mostly nocturnal, for starters. By day, your average owl keeps hirself very much to hirself, snuggled down in some tree hollow or snuggled up in dense evergreen foliage. Yet despite the fact that most people rarely or never see them, owls are compelling to humans. Maybe it’s the big binocular stare. Maybe it’s the erect posture, the often human-like expressions, the way the eared owls work their little tufts. Maybe it’s the mystery of silent wings in the night. Maybe their very elusiveness plays a role, preventing familiarity from breeding contempt. Anyway, a lot of people, birders and non-birders alike, have got it bad for owls.
Inimitable Todd is one of those people. And ever since he saw Bruce Yolton’s fabulous Screech Owl pictures in the Urban Hawks blog, he’s gone from mild affection to full-blown obsession. Now, I’m hardly in any position to deprecate someone with a case of birds on brain, so it became my mission to find some owls and look at them with him.
Togetherness is a wonderful thing, especially at the holidays.
In high spirits from the success of our Scrub Jay search, we turned the Iron Death Chariot towards Fort Myers. Our plans were solid; we would stop at a grocery to get lunch snacks and buy sangria fixin’s as a house-warming gift, meet up with one of Todd’s old friends (with whom we’d stay the night) and then go track down the owls in Cape Coral before darkness fell.
Unfortunately, our plan rested on the key assumption that we’d pass one of the many Publix that dot the Florida landscape or some other supermarket. This assumption seemed logical, since you can’t drive 500 yards anywhere else in Florida without passing a Publix.
But of course, when you assume, you make an ass out of you and the American retail establishment. No Publix were in evidence as we wended our way through the suburbs of Fort Myers. We met up with our host, dropped off our luggage, and headed out again. Though the weather was warm, the sun was in a hurry to get under the horizon. I began to worry.
Adding to my worries is the fact that the community of Cape Coral is a bit of a poor man’s Venice (and that man is poorer than ever these days, judging by the number of For Sale signs on lawns,) crisscrossed with little canals. This is super for boat owners, but since no one cared to build a bridge every block, not so convenient for driving. Moreover, though the layout is a grid, the streets are conveniently named things like SW 42nd ST, SW 42 Terrace, SW Forty-second Avenue, and SE 42 Road. So I was a bit nervous about even finding the place where the owls were supposed to be, let alone the owls.
The place where the owls were supposed to be was a sports complex, which we did find, replete with a couple of kids doing batting practice. We cruised slowly around the block-sized complex, spotting a number of suggestive roped-off mounds with holes in them, but no owls.
Ok, I thought, I can live with this. Sure, I really pumped the owls up to the Inimitable Todd, but he’d understand. One incredible new species for the life list is nothing to sneeze at; and look, there’s a Loggerhead Shrike on the telephone wire, I haven’t seen a Loggerhead Shrike in years, that’s a good bird, and no doubt I’ll be back in Florida again far sooner than I’d like, and there are also Burrowing Owls out west, and no doubt we’ll have a good day tomorrow, and it’s fine really….
“We should get out of the car and walk around,” said the Inimitable Todd, and swung into the parking lot.
No one ran up to shoo us away or charge us money or arrest us for trespassing, so we stepped out and began walking up the side of the road. I passed the rope-off mounds, 1, 2, 3, 4, and went to take another look at the Loggerhead Shrike. It looked down on me with something I imagined was very much like pity, but probably it was just annoyed that I was too big to eat.
“Hey, there’s an owl!” said the Inimitable Todd behind me.
Now, it is well-known that I can get a bit excited about birds. My first Brown Creeper, for instance, provoked me to interpretive dance. But Todd was over the moon about this owl. He stared at the owl. The owl stared at him. He gushed about its eyes. It stared at him. He snapped some photos, and I handed him the binoculars so he could attempt some digiscoping. It stared at him.
I myself was a bit moved as well. And impressed. Very impressed. The camouflage on this bird had to be seen to be believed. I had walked right by it, even though it was the target of all my hopes and dreams at the moment!
We walked the rest of the way up the block and found two more owls, which I had also missed. More photos were taken.
As the sun set, we cruised back to Fort Myers…. and found a Publix.
Coming up next… we visit Ding Darling, the refuge that sounds like it’s named after a cartoonist for a very good reason.