Thursday, February 28, 2019

Laura's Best Bird Ever! Chicago Loop Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

In 1975, my first year of birding, I spent every free moment watching birds outside or studying them inside. When Russ and I headed home to Chicago from Michigan State for Christmas break, my lifelist was over 100 and I was hungry for more, so Russ and I went birding three times in the week we were in that toddlin' town. But the very best bird of that trip—one of the best birds of the entire year—wasn’t seen on any birding jaunt—it wasn’t even seen through binoculars.

On December 18th, we went to the Loop for some last minute Christmas shopping. We finished up with time to spare, and so visited a couple of museums along Lake Shore Drive. Because this was not a birding trip, I’d of course left my heavy 7x50 binoculars at home. 

Suddenly, as we walked along on the bustling sidewalk, what to my wondering eyes should appear but an enormous, mostly white bird flying toward us just a few feet over the mass of pedestrians, staying directly above the sidewalk. Its thick, rounded wings flapped slowly. Its huge yellow eyes, facing forward within its huge round white face made it unmistakably an owl. This was the first owl I’d ever seen, and it wasn’t just any owl. This was a Snowy Owl!

I spotted it when it was perhaps a hundred feet away still, but even though it seemed to be flying at a leisurely pace, it was moving in fast. My heart raced, oxygenated blood rushing to overloaded brain circuits as I tried to process and memorize every detail. When it was a mere 10 feet away or even closer, its eyes suddenly looked straight into mine; it held eye contact until it started passing over my head. I’d stopped dead in my tracks, too dumbfounded to even gasp, and Russ didn’t notice at first—he made it back to me, now facing the opposite direction to watch the bird retreat. Russ arrived barely in time to get a quick glimpse.

That encounter was a significant step in my growing competence as a birder—this was the first lifer I’d ever seen without binoculars, and I could appreciate that as it flew in, it was too close for my binoculars to focus on anyway. I was knowledgeable enough to realize that Snowy Owls do appear here and there along the Lake Michigan waterfront in winter and are often active in daytime, so spotting it wasn’t exceptional in any larger ornithological context than as an addition to my life list. But what an addition!

Birding is ever so much more than ornithology and lists, and this bird was ever so much more than a generic Snowy Owl. Something magic happens when our eyes meet anyone else’s—a spark of recognition of individuality, a momentary but real connection between two beings who are simply in the same place at the same time, but then unexpectedly and inexplicably join together in a single shared moment. This was certainly no Vulcan mind-meld, nor even what could be called a meeting of minds. Just a momentary connection, as sudden and electric as a synapse, lasting less than a second and ending the instant the owl broke eye contact. I kept following his retreating form with longing, tracking him as he grew smaller and smaller in the distance, moving on toward the rest of his life.