The Short-eared Owl – An ABA Young Birders Essay

By Ezra White – an ABA Young Birder


Five-oh-six p.m., November eighteenth, two thousand twenty-three
An eerie darkness creeps up from the corners of a raspberry-edged, cloudless sky
Ridgetops of shivering grass stand silent and serene over tiny Panhandle Trail
The earth’s constant turning pushes night just above the distant town of Midway,
Final inches of sunlight retreating at the ridgetop,
And a cricket chirps as though it were still August

The four of us stare blankly at the flat farmland ahead
I shiver, wishing my mitts could grow fingers
It has been ten minutes since the last harrier pounced at something on the hill’s other side
We should give up at five thirty, we decide
The sunset five minutes ago, someone reads from the forecast
Someone else decides that the harrier had been an immature male

Stories of failure to see the capable, invisible bird comfort and disappoint us
We share worried glances as we turn slowly away from the dark blanket of grass
It is then that someone sees them

Two bouncing specks appear along the hillside at our collective back
A silhouetted finger points at their place on the hazy amber dome called the sky
None of us need to state what they are

Two acrobats, marionettes of the sky, tumbling with immeasurable agility:
Accuracy defined by nothing but their own will;
Together they fly in loops, curls, and zigzags
Farther into the hemlock-lined horizon

An owl returns
Diving over the hillside
Wrists of crimson coming alive in the low light
Brown of a million shades swirling across its mottled body
Flat face—a mixture of white and black that no artist could master—
Turning this way and that as it spins and tumbles in its dance

Its otherworldly pirouettes make us marvel at all that this great bird is
How nothing lies beyond the Short-eared Owl

I gasp as it dives again, a great and forceful push against the hillside,
And rises again on an updraft,
The cold makes my hand shake too much to record it
But why should I care what I do with my camera,
My digital attention trap,

And what does it matter:
All my cares fly helpless in the tearing wind, miles upon miles of distance gained
For two Short-eared Owls are dancing before my very eyes
And everything in my life seems so minute, so insignificant,
Shrinking into the golden expanse that lies before me

With two gravity-defying owls in glorious light on a beautiful night,
The world is nonsense
I am so lost in my own head that I do not watch them disappear

An excited hand (is it mine?) points at another flying up,
Bouncing from nowhere is a giant conjured from thin air
Traversing back and forth, back and forth across the ridge,
Plunging for unsuspecting prey

The sun, which has become the clouded amber of pine resin,
Gives the owl a ghostlike, tinted complexion

Swerving in breathtaking pursuit between undefined obstacles,
It has no care as to where one property ends, where another begins
Oh, to be a Short-eared Owl!

The night is pitch black now
Vivid sights of marvelous, tumbling birds illuminate our eyes no longer, only our minds
Awareness shrinks to nothing but two stars, the moon, and us, four tiny birders
Who tromp ungracefully down the ridge’s side

Ezra White is a young birder located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Enthralled by birds ever since he was gifted the Sibley Guide to Birds at age six, he has seen over three hundred species across the country since then. Due to his interests, Ezra has had the chance to write for the Three Rivers Birding Club, lead walks and win a scholarship for the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology, and participate in the American Bird Association’s Young Birder of the Year program. While most of his birding occurs locally in western Pennsylvania, some of his favorite locations away from home include Boulder, Colorado, and the Magee Marsh in Ohio. When not birding (which is rare), Ezra enjoys writing, reading, illustration, and guitar.