anne_mikolay_120The usual backyard wildlife resides on my property: chipmunk, groundhog, skunk, squirrel, raccoon, and an array of colorful birds. Woodpeckers, chickadees, nut-hatches, juncos, cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, and several varieties of finches, including goldfinches, are so common in my yard that I take them for granted. But every once in a while, Nature blesses me with a gift that takes my breath away.

Early Monday morning, in the pause between darkness and daylight, as I was getting ready to take my son to school, I heard the unmistakable, thrilling hooting of an owl outside, something I have not heard in years. When we first moved to Middletown, we were awakened each morning by a screech owl and a rooster crowing, but thanks to questionable “progress” in local land development, the screech owl and the rooster sadly disappeared. So it was with great excitement that I realized an owl was very nearby.

Being the nature lover that I am, I threw on a coat, and ran outside to look around.

There in my backyard, silhouetted against the soft violet sky of dawn, were the definite figures of two great horned owls perched on a tree limb. I can't describe their beauty, nor can I describe my joy at seeing them.

great_horned_owlGreat horned owls, I have learned, derive their name from the ear tufts of feathers that appear to be “horns” atop their heads. Ranging in size from 18 to 25 inches, and possessing a wingspan of 36 to 60 inches, the great horned owl begins its activity at dusk, but has been spotted in late afternoon and early morning. Their territorial call, which generally occurs from dusk to about midnight, and then again just before dawn, can be heard over several miles. The sedentary, or non-migratory, great horned owl has adapted to different places and climates throughout North America, and can be found everywhere from deep forests to the suburbs. Though I am astounded to know there are two great horned owls in my yard, these birds are surprisingly common in New Jersey.

The great horned owl is one of eight different species of owl found in New Jersey (great horned, screech, barred, barn, long eared, short eared, saw whet and snowy owl). Despite their considerable size, however, a great horned owl is difficult to spot, though it often leaves clues to its presence. Whitewash, a dried, whitish excrement on branches and trunks of trees, is a clear sign that a great horned is nearby. Additionally, great horned owls sometimes leave pellets, small cigar-shaped clumps containing fur and small bones, things an owl cannot digest and regurgitates, at the base of trees where they reside.  Sometimes, as in my case, there are no clues to the great horned owl's presence other than its haunting"hoo-hoo hoooooo hoo-hoo."

What do I learn from this? On the practical side, I now know with certainty that I can never leave my tiny dog, natural owl prey, outside alone. On a more spiritual level, I am greatly humbled to realize that though something, like my yard or mankind's very being, may appear ordinary and quite unremarkable, deep inside, hidden, unseen, is proof of God's existence.