Exiting the Cold Snap

This morning’s temperature was 54 degrees warmer than it was a week ago. Already it feels like a distant memory to get up and check the thermometer, only to see it in the -20s, day after frigid day. To wait until mid-day for the air temp to reach a balmy -4 before setting out for a run. To forego my afternoon friend walks in favor of warmth by the fireplace. While Covid was socially confining, the cold compounded it.

As the mercury rose, so did the options for outdoor activities and Covid-save ways to meet up with family and friends. I readily embraced the opportunities.

First up was the Luminary Walk. This candle-lit stroll on the Lakewalk was part of the city’s Cold Front activities intended to celebrate winter. Ironically, it was postponed by the real cold front. Its new date fell on the first “warm” evening, a sure indication that I should get out and do it, and I convinced Rich to join me. Because we could.

Luminary Walk

To celebrate our son Erik’s birthday, we arranged to meet up with him and his wife, Katie, at Banning State Park. The river trail followed the ice covered stream and led us to rapidly flowing water gurgling in the icy openings. The sun shone down and I could feel its glow on my face, its warmth radiating down to my fingertips. There was no reason to hurry, it was enough just to be outside and moving, in the company of family, conversation flowing up and down the line. With a trunk load of firewood, we soon had a roaring campfire in the picnic grounds and warmed our innards with hot chocolate and s’mores. Lingering until the sun was low in the sky.

Rich Molly Erik Katie at Banning State Park
Erik Katie Rich hiking at Banning
Erik by Kettle River at Banning
Rich Molly Erik campfire at Banning

The icy snow on the ski trails was rejuvenated by a slow gentle snowfall and lured me back out on my skis for the first time in two weeks. It was a sweet reunion, gliding over fresh grooming, moving freely without the encumbrance of extra layers, not worrying about losing any fingers or toes. Remembering winter as it should be.

Lester ski trail
Shadow Molly XC trail

The grand finale of this recent surge in outdoor social life was being invited back to the “snow room.” Thanks to the ingenuity of our friends, we have enjoyed a number of pleasant happy hours and light suppers outdoors in front of a fireplace surrounded by snow walls. Protected from the wind and containing the heat of the fire, spacious enough to position our chairs with six feet between couples, we whiled away the hours enjoying the personal contact we took for granted a year ago.

Luikart's snow room
Molly Rich happy hour Luikart's snow room
Jon Beth Rich supper in Luikart's snow room

What a relief to relish the outdoors once again. To resume this strange new normal. To exit the cold snap.

A River Worthy of Snowshoes

The trick with snowshoes is to find a place to walk where you actually need them. When Erik and I first arrived at the Sucker River, we wondered if we were wearing unnecessary encumbrances.

The new fallen snow lay sparkling on the river’s ice bed, billowing over underlying formations and giving way to openings where the water flowed rapidly downstream. Overhead, tall pines framed the deep blue sky and the wilderness beckoned. But although we had the river to ourselves that day, we were hardly the first ones there. A well-beaten path headed upstream, trampled by snowshoes, boots, fat tire bikes and skis.

Erik and Finley on Sucker River

The good news was that the trail showed us where it was safe to walk. I had no qualms about skirting the watery openings, stopping to peer at the ice bubbles that formed around the edges. Dozens had done this before.

Sucker River open water
Sucker River icy bubbles

Even on the ice, I could hear the water below, burbling. The sounds accompanied our walk and I stopped frequently to admire nature’s artwork.

We clambered up waterfalls, and as they got progressively steeper I was thankful for the ice teeth on my snowshoes. They were just as useful on the way back down.

Before long, we lost our fellow hikers and the trail narrowed to one set of ski tracks and fat tire treads. When those petered out, only animal tracks crisscrossed the river. Dare we follow them? We made our way to the river’s edge to continue, happy to have our snowshoes.

Molly on Sucker River
Erik and Finley upstream on Sucker River

Sunlight warming our backs, pristine snow and deep silence rewarded us for venturing far upstream. When the river flattened out, the snow depth thinned. We hoped to reach 3 miles inland, but stopped a little short when the ice visibly changed and appeared to be slushy up ahead.

The return trip delivered new views on the banks, different snow and ice sculptures on the river, and deep breaths of crisp clean air. An escape through a corridor accessible by foot only in the winter. And worthy of snowshoes.

Snow art on Sucker River
Erik and Molly snowshoeing Sucker River

Christmas in our Bubble

Social distancing. Face masks. Isolating. Six feet apart. Quarantining. COVID. Words constantly on our lips. Concepts we have learned to live with.

Family. Gathering. Feasting. Sharing. Hugging. Christmas. Words we long to express. Emotions we ache to indulge.

It’s a strange mixture, this new reality. And we all forge our own paths through the unknowns of the pandemic. After months of having to be uber-careful following Rich’s surgery, we sought relief. We launched a plan well in advance to add our daughter, Karen, her husband Matt and their four children to our bubble to spend Christmas together. As the day approached and everyone remained isolated and healthy, we welcomed them into our house and our arms for four wonderful days of normalcy.

We had no problem sequestering ourselves as a blizzard raged outside. We easily distanced ourselves while sledding down through the swirling snow, kids disappearing from sight in the raging wind and swirling snowflakes. Laughter reigned among bumpy rides and grueling walks to the top of the hill. We were alone in the storm.

Karen and kids sledding in blizzard

Inside we warmed up with hot chocolate, played games, read books and watched a Christmas movie. Squeezing into the tiny TV room, we attended our Christmas Eve church service on the big screen. There was no nursery for the little ones, but their antics didn’t seem to bother the other worshippers. And we didn’t have to wear masks.

Santa’s visit seemed a safe bet. As long as the kids stayed in bed, he was guaranteed a safe social distance. So preparations commenced per usual. A note, cookies for Santa and a carrot for each reindeer were prepared. And the kids skedaddled off to their room.

Mya writing to Santa
Kennedy Kids ready for Santa

Christmas morning began at the stroke of 6:00am. I heard little voices, and poked my head out to find the kids, lying in wait for me! I’m not sure who was more surprised!

Christmas morning surprise

Through the child-induced pandemonium of tearing through wrappings, squeals of delight and the inevitable squabbles, the quintessential Christmas unfolded. Pandemic or not. It was the most normal I’ve felt in months. The best Christmas present ever.

When things quieted down, grandson Ben begged to try cross-country skiing despite the below zero temperatures. Bundling up, he and I shared my two sets of classic skis and boots, and we fudged on the poles to set out on the trails. We easily remained six feet away from the other skiers, trading Christmas greetings as Ben took off like a pro.

Molly and Ben skiing
Ben skiing for the first time

Circling the table laden with food, we said grace, asked God’s help for those struggling with COVID, and gave thanks for all that we have – particularly one another. Gathered together. Within hugging distance. The biggest blessing of all.

Christmas Dinner 2020

We connected with other family members through FaceTime, Zoom and the good old cell phone. Safely distanced, but close in our hearts. I sincerely hope that this is the last time that being together for Christmas – or any day – is unusual.

Christmas with the Kennedys

Coming Half Circle

The infant days of COVID-19 seem so long long ago. Back in those early times, it all seemed so strange. So disruptive. So confining. And lonely. In lieu of a social life, I took to the outdoors. By mid-afternoon each day I needed to flee the house, and began walking Seven Bridges Road. What a boon it was to have the city extend the road closing, to have a safe place to walk just outside my door. To climb that hill time and time again, and venture over to Hawk Ridge to look down on Lakeside. Quiet, traffic-less, sheltered neighborhoods. Shuttered by the virus.

Seven Bridges Road April 2020

I watched the leaves come out, the grass come to life, the roadside don its cloak of spring green finery. And still I traveled through a foreign world. The road reopened, and I joined the cyclists grinding up those same hills. My wheels took me further afield, granting a longer and more vigorous escape. I retraced old routes, invented new ones and flew down newly surfaced roads that felt like butter under my spinning tires. It felt almost normal. But I couldn’t out pedal the grip of the virus.

In summer, lively voices accompanied my wanderings. Amity Creek was teeming with life as teens and families alike were drawn to its swimming holes and surrounding woods in greater numbers than usual. “Hammockers” inhabited the trees. Thrill seekers jumped from high cliffs. Kids played hide and seek in the bushes. Picnickers ate by the stream. All eager to forget. Not exactly social distancing. We all needed a way to cope.

Fall’s colors painted over my world, brightening my days with radiance. Every day brought a new landscape, each set of changing leaves outperforming the last. Enticing me out to walk my route before they faded. Those hikes were habit by then. Seeking beauty in a world inhabited by ugly germs.

Hawk Ridge fall view

The falling leaves now signal the waning warmth in our days. Days which have already grown too short for my taste, darkness closing in on both sides. Gone are the evenings we could sit on opposite ends of the deck with friends, to relish seeing them in person. To satisfy that craving for live company. In ways we are allowed in the midst of the virus.

I feel winter lurking at the door, ready to scale down my social opportunities. To limit my face to face contact to that contingent of friends that embraces snow, skis, snowshoes and bundled up walks. To challenge my creativity and strengthen my tolerance for Zoom. All in the name of staying safe.

I don’t know what I expected when the first shut-down order came. I wasn’t naive enough to think it was only a matter of weeks. But I didn’t fully grasp the long-term nature of this confinement. Yet here we are. My walks up Seven Bridges Road tell me we have come half circle. I now have no doubt we will complete this circuit, and then some. Until the virus releases its hold on our lives.

Seven Bridges Road October 2020

Seeking the Peak

Was it more of a gift for Karen, or for us?  For her birthday, our daughter was given a weekend away, to indulge in her own desires without the constant demands of four little ones while her husband Matt held down the fort.  As hosts, we were the happy recipients of this generosity.

Karen’s phone pinged with a notification early in the day of her departure.  “Northern half of Minnesota approaching peak fall color,” it said.  “Good timing!” she texted us.  The search for color was on.

Saturday morning arrived along with thick fog.  Undaunted, Karen and I set out for a walk up Seven Bridges Road and across Hawk Ridge to take in the view.  But there wasn’t one.  But that didn’t stop us from enjoying the close range colors bordering the road, and the mother/daughter walk and talk time.

Hawk Ridge colors in fog Hawk Ridge in fog Karen on foggy birding platform Extending our route to include Amity Coffee, we sipped our hot drinks on the final stretch to home.

Karen and Molly on color walk

Our next outing was an afternoon bike ride.  Ignoring the dark clouds and nascent raindrops as we loaded the bikes on the car, Karen and I doggedly held to our plan.  Rich’s recent fall from his bike prevented him from joining us, but his pitying look told us he didn’t envy our stubbornness.

By the time we started our ride on the Munger Trail in Carlton, the rain had stopped.  The trail conditions were wet but we rejoiced in our good fortune and set our wheels in motion.  Heading back toward Duluth, we whizzed along the long gradual descent, trying not to think about the uphills it meant on our return trip.

Munger Trail colorsMunger Trail colors 2 Karen cycling Munger Trail Molly Karen rainy Munger Trail

Just as we were about to turn onto highway 23 for a loop route, the rain resumed.  Rather than endure road spray from cars, we chose to turn around and cycle back through the same tunnel of color on the trail, splashed by raindrops.  The temperature was mild and it wasn’t enough to soak us through.  Not as nice as a sunny day, but a good adventure none the less.  So far, weather 0 colors 10.

Sunday promised clear skies, and I knew Karen had her heart set on seeing the North Shore colors – just as every other leaf peeper did.  But we were determined to beat them.  Rising early, the three of us set off before the traffic and headed to Tettegouche State Park.  Driving inland, we hiked into Tettegouche Camp on Micmac Lake from the back side of the park.  There we could take in the colors without crowds.

Rich Karen hiking Tettegouche

Karen Molly overlooking Micmac LakeTettegouche Camp with colorsThe only thing that remained was an overlook.  For that, Karen and I climbed Mt. Baldy.  We discovered that it provided not only a view of Micmac Lake, but also Nicado Lake on the opposite side.  Surrounded by endless views of blazing fall color.

Karen hiking to Mt Baldy Mt Baldy view of Micmac LakeMt Baldy view of Nicado Lake

We finished our hike in good time, beating the rush back to Duluth yet catching the best of the colors.  At their peak.

Karen returned to her little charges rejuvenated and fulfilled.  I finished the weekend on a high as well.  Thank you, Matt!

I Love this Ride

As I strained against my bicycle pedals while advancing up the hill, debate raged in my head.  Rounding the corner I asked myself, should I or shouldn’t I?  Nearing the turn I pondered anew – what to do?

In my well ordered world, I would continue on with my planned early morning bike ride/workout.  I would complete my 30 miles, finish my breakfast toast slathered with peanut butter en route to the coffee shop, then perch on the front porch with a medium skim latte and write for several hours.  It’s what I do.

But possibility lurked.  It was a mild clear morning with the sun just rising, and the brilliant leaves told me they were approaching prime.  Not quite there yet, but the weather forecast promised ugly conditions for the next week.  The leaves might not outlast the ugly.

I had yet to perform my annual ritual. At least once a year I take a ride across the city of Duluth, perched on the hilltop following Skyline Drive with the harbor and lake far below.  This would be the perfect day to do so.  But it wasn’t in my plan.  And I always follow my plan.  Or do I?

I turned left.  Never mind that I had only a half full water bottle for a 40+ mile ride.  So what if my usual granola bar stash was in my other bike bag?  Forget the fact that my map of this route was in the same place.  I had to go for it.

Whizzing along in the early morning sunlight, the air alternated between hot humid blasts that fogged my glasses and the more habitual chilly air.  I felt loose and free.  The writing will wait.  The story will still get done.  I was doing something for myself, and it  felt good.

I had a good 20 mile ride through the countryside just to get to the opposite side of town.  But even that blossomed with fall colors.  They were all around me.  It’s what I had come for.

Fall colors Lavaque Road

Reaching the Information Center at Thompson Hill marked the beginning of Skyline Drive.  From there, the scenic drive snaked across the crest of the hill, weaving back and forth in a rolling ride through forests of fall colors.  My pace took a nosedive as I continually stopped to snap pictures, to gawk, to appreciate.

Skyline Drive fall colors 1 Skyline Drive fall colors 2 Skyline Drive fall colors 3 Skyline Drive fall colors 4

Normally, the appeal of Skyline is the view.  The panoramic spread of the St. Louis River, the harbor and Lake Superior is visible from multiple overlooks and is a real-life geography lesson.  But not today.  Blue smoky haze from the western wildfires hovered over the scene.  Across the water, Wisconsin was a blur.  The horizon erased.  The flat water on this calm day stretched into nothingness.  All of it was eclipsed by the vivid scenery in my immediate vicinity.

With one exception.  The quintessential Duluth experience – a thousand-foot ore boat was inching its way out of the harbor and making its final turn to pass under the Aerial Bridge.  In my “why not?” state of mind, I had all the time in the world to wait for it. Even if it resembled the scene from a faded black and white movie.

Ore boat approaching the bridge

Skyline Drive dumps out unceremoniously at the gates of UMD, and I dutifully skirted the campus.  But even that had its rewards, as I passed the flaming maples of Bagley Nature Area abutting a student parking lot.

The final stretch took me across Hawk Ridge where I bumped along the dirt road amid a gaggle of bird watchers observing the migration.  Then I twirled down Seven Bridges Road through a tunnel of gold – home territory and the terminus of my own driveway.

How glad I am that I followed my yearnings.  That I heeded the siren call and threw my plans to the wind.  And relished this last gasp of warm colorful weather.  Throughout it all, the same chorus kept repeating in my head: Oh, how I love this ride!  

Dip Dip and Swing

Our paddles keen and bright,
Flashing like silver;
Swift as the wild goose flight,
Dip, dip, and swing.

That old Girl Scout song infiltrates my brain, repeats over and over again, accompanying the strokes that propel our canoe.  I’ve been yearning for this.  There is no escape quite like launching a canoe and becoming one with the water.  Losing myself in the pristine wilderness, the tree-ringed lakes, and the silence broken only by loon calls and the swish of our paddles.

Molly Rich canoe Sawbill Lake

I’ve been lobbying for a trip to the Boundary Waters.  To camp and sit by the fire.  To look beyond at the brilliant stars.  To hope for an Aurora. To crawl out of the tent in the morning and drink my coffee while looking out at the calm water.  To set out and paddle the whole day long.  But it wasn’t in the cards.

While in Grand Marais with our son Erik and his wife, Katie, we went up the Sawbill Trail and rented two canoes for the day.  Rich and I paddled one, they shared one with their dog, Finley who rode complacently in the duffer spot.

Erik Katie paddling Sawbill Lake

It all came flooding back.  That Boundary Waters feeling, the seclusion, the lack of technology and urgency which pervades our lives.  Just us and the water.  Dip dip and swing.

We traveled the length of Sawbill Lake, surfing the rollers stirred up by a strong south wind.  All the while knowing we would have to paddle back again into that same wind.  But we forged onward regardless.  An 80 rod portage took us into Ada Creek where we found quiet backwaters to have a floating lunch.  Finley wondered why we didn’t portage more often so he could run.  It was all good.Erik Rich portaging canoes

Yes, it was a brutal return battling into the wind.  But it did the trick.  I didn’t think about COVID all day.  I didn’t worry about wearing a mask, washing my hands for 20 seconds or who was in my circle.  All I had to do was paddle.  Dip, dip and swing.

This morning Rich and I launched a canoe once again.  We are staying in a secluded lake home at Gunflint Pines Resort, which comes complete with private lakefront, a canoe, and our own fire ring on the shore.  Gunflint Lake is not quite in the Boundary Waters, but close enough.  The fog was just lifting from our end of the lake when we pushed off.

Our dock at Gunflint Pines

It was calm as we crossed the large lake in the early morning.  Our destination was Magnetic Lake, but we accidentally sidetracked into a quiet inlet instead.  I didn’t  care.  Nascent fall colors accented the forest reflected in the calm waters.  We pondered the international border that ran along our route, the US to our left, Canada on our right.  The rest of the world didn’t exist.  Dip, dip and swing.

Canoeing Gunflint LakeMolly canoeing Gunflint Lake

We couldn’t help but be attracted to the ornate golden estate that populated the opposite shore on Magnetic Lake.  It turned out to be on the island we were encouraged to encircle, and I insisted we do so.  I was intrigued with the intricate carvings on the perfectly maintained structures and flower boxes with red blooms.

Magnetic Lake

The wind came up and challenged us on our return.  It wouldn’t be a canoe trip without requiring a bit of extra effort.  The far shoreline advanced ever so slowly as we beat our way into the waves, back across the endless expanse of water.  We poured all we had into the task.  It’s all that mattered.  Just as I wanted.  Dip, dip and swing.

Loon Swimming Companions

For three years running I had a feud with the loons. We battled one another for my swimming space in front of the cabin, and invariably the loons won. With their fancy dances and alarmist yodeling, they drove me away. Away from swimming my laps. Away from their young chicks. Unseen but undoubtedly nearby in their nest.

I never did figure out where that nest was. But in loon logic it was too close for comfort. Too close to let a swimming human any closer.

By now I have been well trained. Starting each July, I scan the water for loons before pushing off from the dock. I double check the area as I near the widening in the reeds. The loon parents have radar and will speed in from the middle of the lake to fend off my advances. But not this year.

So far I have yet to encounter a single loon while swimming. Sadly, I know it means they have no chicks. Or perhaps they have moved their nest further afield. I hope it is the latter.

This morning a loon pair float into my space as I begin my swim. Hesitantly I breaststroke, keeping my head above water, my eyes trained on the loons. They remain calm. Floating, dipping their heads in the water, looking for fish. I try shouting to drive them away, but they ignore my silly cries, only giving a mild yodel to acknowledge my presence. So I swim on.Molly swimming with loons 1Molly swimming with loons 2

This is nothing like the protective threats of yore, which instilled a healthy fear and retreat. I know not to cross that line. But this feels different. I engage full lap swimming mode, crossing from one side of the reeds to the other and back again in a strong front crawl. Without the line in the bottom of a swimming pool, my laps tend to stray off course, so I steal looks now and again to make sure I am not veering closer to the loons. Still they float nonchalantly, willing to share the space.Molly swimming with loons 3

Underneath my minor victory lies a good dose of discomfort. They are still wild birds, after all, and unpredictable. I head for shore while I’m still ahead on this round. I send my loon friends a silent thanks for their company and forbearance. For letting me swim with them.

Next year the feud may resume.  I do want their chicks to survive. Just not near my swimming spot.  I would miss my loon swimming companions.Molly swimming with loons 4

All photos by Rich Hoeg, 365DaysOfBirds.com

Note: The telephoto lens makes the loons appear closer to me than they really were – they were about 5 yards away.

A Welcome Retreat

Northstar SunsetRhythmically dipping my paddle into the water on alternate sides of my kayak, I slide away from the dock.  No need to hurry, no interest in exerting myself, I slip out only a few hundred yards, lay my paddle across the kayak and just float.  Drifting in the calm water I take a deep breath and watch the sunset play across the slight ripples from distant boats, rocking gently as they pass.  There are no clouds to generate a spectacular sunset in the sky.  Instead the show takes place on the lake, reflecting the oranges then pinks of the disappearing light.

Two nearby loons begin to call, each eerie cry echoing in the woods beyond the shore.  More loons take up the song, taking turns calling and answering.  Soon the rounds circle the lake, die out then start up again.  Mesmerizing.  Enchanting.  I drink in the scene, freeing all outside thoughts from my crowded mind, just being.

The cabinSince the beginning of the coronavirus, this has been my get-away.  My source of sanity in a world we no longer recognize.  The quiet connections with nature soothe my soul, restore peace to my heart as I focus on what hasn’t changed.  COVID-19 ceases to invade my thoughts here.  And social distancing requires no effort in our remote little cabin.  It’s life as usual up here.

We started coming in mid-May, our 30th spring opening since we bought the place.  It brought a sense of normalcy to those early days of sheltering.Cabin view of the dock Cabin old boat

We are privileged to have this little haven.  Our children grew up coming here, building family memories, escaping our busy suburban world back home, focusing on the simple joys of life and nature.  This summer “escape” has a whole different meaning.

Even before opening up, we created an online Cabin Calendar.  Each of our three children immediately signed up for one or more weeks at the cabin as well as long weekends for their families.  We sandwiched our stays on weekdays between their visits, and before we knew it the cabin was fully booked.  My heart was as full as that schedule.  The cabin has never seen so much love and activity in one season.

In contrast to my placid sunset, the laughs, squabbles and squeals of delight fill the air as our grandchildren swim, learn to kayak, plead for another boat ride and sneak another s’more when Mom’s not looking.  Our kids find time to read, ride bikes, go for hikes in the woods.  I can’t resist the urge to make extra trips up to the cabin to join them, to relish time together – another silver lining of the virus.Katie Erik Molly kayaking Carl Chelsea and kids on pontoon Kennedy kids eat smores

Part of me relishes this slowing down.  Staying local instead of taking far-flung vacations.  Squeezing into the cabin with our growing family, or hiding away up there by ourselves.  One day we will all travel again, seek adventure in new places, indulge ourselves in lavish resorts or wilderness camping.  For me right now, it’s enough to float in the middle of the lake, feeling no urgency to move.  Retreating from the world.

A Wake-up Call

It’s not easy being the wife of a birder.

I am snug in bed thinking about getting up but not actually doing so quite yet.  From the other room, I hear my phone ring.  At 6am it can only be one person – either that or something terrible has happened.  Sure enough, it’s Rich.

“Get dressed right away!  You have to come over here and see this!  One of the owlets is on the ground!”  Even in my groggy state I know right where he is, and exactly what he is talking about.

For the past three months, Rich has been visiting “his owls.”  It took him a dozen wintry searches for the mating Great Horned Owls, triangulating their hooting, and looking for them in the trees.  But it all paid off when he found their nest.  It is in the woods less than 10 minutes by foot from our house.  In late winter he watched Mom Owl on the nest and Dad Owl hunting for food.  When they produced three baby owlets, you’d think Rich had new grandkids!  He visited them on a regular basis, reporting back their progress and how fast they were growing.When the coronavirus hit and we took to sheltering in place, Rich’s vigil escalated.  What else was there to do?  He began checking on them multiple times a day.  Whenever things got dull, he’d head out into the woods again.  Or any time he heard a crow attack – a sure sign they were pestering the owls – he returned to the scene to make sure his owlets were still okay.  I kidded him that he spent more time with them than with me.

Learning their nocturnal habits, Rich began refining his timing.  Early morning when the owlets were being fed before sleeping, or evenings when they were becoming active again were the best time to see them.  He even lured me over one evening, and I succumbed to the cuteness factor, staying to watch the three sets of owl eyes peer down at me from their branches high in the tree.  They really were hard to resist.  I went back a few nights later.

This morning the urgency in his voice propels me out the door.  “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!” he claims.  I’m not a birder, but I know better than to disappoint one.  Trotting over to the nesting area, I spot Rich’s red jacket in the woods.  Creeping up next to him, he points out the owlet – just 40 yards away, perched on a broken tree branch just a couple feet off the ground.  It’s one thing seeing an owl up high in a tree.  It’s another to observe it at eye level.

“I found him on the path.  He was being hassled by the crows and was vulnerable in the open space, so I flushed him into the woods.  Mom and Dad are up in the trees trying to protect him.  I’m doing the same on the ground.”  We creep a little closer, all the while being watched by those gold rimmed eyes.

This owlet is not so little any more.  He’s over a foot tall, and has already mastered short flights between trees.  Silently I peer at this fluffy white wonder, little horns already forming atop his head, signature owl eyes staring back at me.  Even lacking any affinity for birding, I can’t help but be entranced.

The owlet clearly is not in any hurry to move.  He perches motionless except for his pivoting head and blinking eyes.  Rich hunkers down for the long haul, watching, protecting, his camera shutter pulsing rapidly.  But I eventually reach my limit and turn to go.  Alarmed, the owlet puffs up and flexes his wings, in defense against this blue jacketed stranger who suddenly feels threatening.  His display reveals brown and black feathers, and he lowers his head to glare at me.  As soon as he realizes I am retreating, he resumes his stationary pose.

I certainly didn’t expect to run out of the house at 6am this morning.  Nor would I have chosen to spend my first waking minutes “birding.”  But this is one of those times when it was worth heeding that wake-up call from my resident birder.  It was a hoot.

All photos by Rich Hoeg.  More photos, videos and details can be found on his blog, 365DaysOfBirds