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Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: A most unlikely encounter

Outdoors Column | Les Winkeler: A most unlikely encounter

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The last rays of sunlight were filtering through the hickories and oaks when a barred owl hooted in the distance.

Within seconds, another owl joined in and possibly a third. It had been a hot, sticky day and the spirited banter of the owls was the only thing breaking the silence of the impending sunset.

Speaking in hushed tones, I told my wife it would be nice if one of the owls would fly into our compound. Despite hearing owls on multiple occasions this spring, I had yet to actually see one.

Alas, the owl conversation died out as quickly as it began. The owls apparently went their separate ways, none of them toward us. It was another opportunity lost.

Fast forward 15 hours and move 100 miles south and a most unlikely encounter with an owl played out.

Upon returning home from our impromptu camping trip, it was obvious all our plants needed water … and quickly. After carrying our gear inside, I walked out the front door to place a sprinkler between two large planters.

While stepping off the porch, a fairly large bird flew from a low branch on one of the massive oak trees that dominate our front yard. The bird was large, almost the size of a hawk, but its shape and flight pattern were wrong for a hawk.

The bird flew across the street and swooped upwards to a branch in a neighbor’s sweet gum tree. The fluffy feathers indicated the bird was a juvenile. Although it was a long shot, I ran back inside to fetch my camera, fulling expecting the little guy to be gone when I returned.

That wasn’t the case. The tiny owl remained perched on the branch in the open. Although I still hadn’t figured out what kind of owl it was (Spoiler alert: a juvenile screech owl), I took dozens of photos because it’s not often you get the opportunity to photograph an owl in broad daylight.

While taking photos, it became obvious the owl’s appearance had disrupted the neighborhood. Not from a human perspective, my wife and I were the only people aware of the owl’s presence.

However, word spread quickly among the bird world.

Within minutes there were at least a half-dozen robins in the gum tree, taking turns strafing the unsuspecting owl, perhaps making his first solo fray into the real world. A few minutes later, a cardinal or two joined the fray.

Since, eastern screech owls are known to eat other birds, word spread quickly through the avian Neighborhood Watch program.

The young owl seemed taken aback by all the commotion. The discomfort the owl was feeling was palpable, as was its sense of confusion. The owl sat quietly, turning its head from side-to-side as robins strafed it from every direction.

After a few minutes of abuse, the young owl moved to a higher branch, a location more protected by leaves. That stopped the strafing, but the verbal assault continued. The robins and cardinals continued to scream loudly until the owl had enough and took refuge somewhere else.

The owl adventure is just the latest episode in an amazing spring of birding in my yard. Just a few weeks ago a white-winged dove, a south Florida bird, appeared at my feeder.

I’m thinking sitting on my front porch with my camera in hand may be a better use of my time than traveling to area parks or refuges. If a snail kite or purple gallinule shows up, I’ll be convinced.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at on Twitter @LesWinkeler.


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