Four years ago on this dubious football holiday (I do not count myself among the fans), I was privileged to welcome a darling northern pygmy-owl to my life list. The search was tipped from from a listserv and led me to a mountain hideaway and an hour's walk, only to be treated to a very winning sighting just barely in the opposite direction from my path, a stone's throw from the parking lot. Still, I considered it a win.
Today, in an eerie parallel, was an even bigger win and a much more sought-after victory. For a pleasant Sunday walk, my husband and I revisited a patch of the Provo River Trail we have trod many times before, in all seasons and at all times a day. I doubt, however, any time will be so memorable as today.
We arrived just before noon, the only vehicle in the small lot, and took a few moments to adjust my field bag and binocular harness. Just steps from the truck, I looked to the north, where I'd been hearing intermittent calls from a black-billed magpie. I smiled to see one of my favorite corvids, when another wingspan just slightly to the east caught my eye. It was broad, with rounded tips, white below and richly golden-brown above. The head was flattened and stunted, the body bullet-like with a tapered rear and powerful legs. It could only be one thing.
For years, I have longed to see these graceful, elegant birds, and I've tried many times, even driving significant distances in dubious conditions and failing light levels to get that elusive lifer. I did see a nest once, including owlets, but my own exacting (and overly picky) counting standards did not permit me to "officially" add the lifer without having seen an adult in all its glory. It seemed for so long that these owls, so easy to see in many places, would remain a nemesis bird for me.
No birder could ask for a more spectacular sighting than what I witnessed today. The day was sunny, the bird coursing over open fields in excellent light that set its plumage aglow. Time and again it passed great fields of view while hunting, and several times it perched for a minute or two in large trees as it scanned for prey. Once it even looked precisely in my direction, showing its distinctive heart-shaped facial disc, dark eyes and tapered bill. Several times I watched it dive to the ground, once it even came so close that my binoculars were unnecessary, even a hindrance. So great was the sighting, so powerful and perfect the experience, tears trickled down my cheeks.
Of course, the one thing that made this once-in-a-lifetime even just the tiniest bit less spectacular was my camera. As in, where was my camera? On the shelf, in my closet, in my office, upstairs in my house, ten miles away - naturally.
Honestly, I'm not all that upset about the lack of a photo - my mind's eye has captured images of this stunning owl far more clearly than my non-existant photography skills could (I've always said I can take great bird photos if the bird lands six feet in front of me and sits still for a half hour). It is ironic that some of my best sightings have occurred sans-camera (a violet-green swallow did land six feet in front of me and sit still for a half hour, but I still didn't have my camera), but that's a lot of what birding is - happy accidents, unexpected miracles, and seeing a bird you've yearned to see for years in a place you've visited the most.