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Magic after dusk

One of the things we've enjoyed doing on a semi-regular basis this summer is night hiking. We have a wooded area at the end of our subdivision, a parcel that is slated for deforestation and planting of houses should the economy and real estate market ever turn around. But for right now it is a patchwork of fields bordered by marshland and woods of beautiful old growth trees, and it is home to all kinds of wildlife. When we hike back there during the day we are likely to see swans, cranes, squirrels, and a myriad of song bird species that delight the eyes and ears. At dusk we are likely to see deer, hawks, and possibly other small crepuscular animals.  But a night hike is a very different thing. On a summer night the fields would come alive with the sounds of crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids, or the various frogs that inhabit the marshlands there, and we could sit on the ground and gaze up to catch sight of the bats cavorting overhead. Night in the forest is a very different world. So when we got the county parks brochure for the fall term and in it we saw a night hike advertised we marked our calendars with a vibrant eagerness.

So many things can go wrong with an outdoor fall event, and as the rain persisted throughout the week I was more than a little skeptical of the sunshine promised for Saturday, the scheduled day of the hike. But for once luck sided with the hapless weatherman and the clouds that seemed rather threatening through the afternoon brought nothing but a chill, but dry, wind to the air, nothing that an extra layer of clothing and a pair of mittens couldn't handle. We met the hiking group at the designated spot in the park and were pleasantly surprised to find that, instead of the fifty people we expected, we were three of only twelve or so. Calvin was also the youngest of only two children, the other being about ten, and we did meet with a few doubtful glances.  What, after all, were we thinking bringing such a young child out after dark in the cold on an activity that required concentration and quiet? I have learned not to take such looks personally, and instead never tire of enjoying people's marked surprise at being proven wrong by the end of (fill in event here). Calvin was quiet and attentive, and we learned a lot about the stars, trees, and insects in the fall, but the main subject of the evening was owls, and that is where the magic comes in. In all of my years I don't believe I've ever heard a real owl call, and certainly I've never heard an Eastern Screech Owl call. Our guide brought a recording of this little owl, who sounds suspiciously like someone pretending to be a horse, and she played it several times hoping to incite a real owl to respond.

No wildlife event can ever promise results, and though our guide was optimistic (the area was usually good for owling, she said), hikers the previous year had apparently been disappointed. She played the call and we waited, standing in darkness in an unknown wood, even the insects quiet, now that the cold had come. She played the call again, and then again. Maybe five minutes we waited, the anticipation palpable at the first now becoming noticeably strained, and then almost as still as the wood around us. And then it came. That owl had waited until almost the last moment, the cusp of time between staying and going, and then he returned our call. He called twice, then three times. It was eerie at first, this sound, exactly like the one made by mechanical art only moments ago, now coming from somewhere in the distance, and approaching with each repeat. And as we waited, huddled together in the dark, he flew by just a few feet overhead. We heard him again in the trees before us, then he flew past again and we heard him call from the trees behind. Screech owls are territorial, and this little guy wondered what strange owl, who sounded so like him, had dared enter his abode. We found him after his final pass, following his call to strike him with the beam of our flashlight in a tree only a few meters away. I had never heard an owl in the wild before, and I most certainly had never seen one. Calvin and I gasped at almost the same moment (where do I think he gets it?), and we were not the only ones. Our view was brief. The poor owl, probably sensing that he'd been duped, took off to nurse his embarrassment elsewhere, and we continued on our hike, quiet at first, each of us cradling the sense magic in our own way, and then in a cacophony of whispers as we all had to talk at once; we had spoken to nature and it had replied.

It's possible that Calvin most enjoyed the campfire, hot cocoa and marshmallows that followed, but I'm not so sure. The whole way home he repeated the Great Horned Owl call in response to my repeated Eastern Screech Owl calls (ask Jon, it was quite delightful), and today he will still go into a whisper to tell you about how sweet the screech owl was, or practice either call whenever asked. For me, I am still holding the magic of those few minutes in the memory of my heart.

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