Quick, Watson. The game is afoot.
For her 24th birthday, I decided to give Rachael Eliot a twofer: two Life Birds in one afternoon; two species she had never seen before. But their reported locations were miles apart. We'd have to get lucky. The clock was against us.
The Merlin (Falco columbarius), a medium sized falcon, at Lakeshore Park in West Knoxville presented itself fairly quickly, perched on a bare branch in the sun, a bit of good fortune that gave us extra time to skedaddle to Cades Cove and Hyatt Lane in the Great Smokies.
The day before I had heard from Jimmy Tucker that short-eared owls (Asio flammeus) were wintering there, which they periodically do. (Short-eareds primarily nest in Canada, venturing south this time of the year, but not always as far as Tennessee.) I also knew they begin to feed in low light, the afterglow of a dying day.
We were in position by 4:30, patrolling the dirt road on foot, 50 to 100 yards apart in the cold, watching both sides, the wide meadows tawny with native grasses and windblown. There was a beauty to the starkness, the isolation, the long shadows, the fading sunlight, the close of day. For over an hour we watched and waited, waited and watched. Northern harriers presented themselves as did a lone kestrel, all hunting for that one final meal before a frozen nightfall.
The eager anticipation of the hunt that had kept us warm in the 20 degree afternoon began to ebb away replaced by numbing cold.
At last, through my binoculars I found two moving shapes in the twilight, but the distance was great and details scant. They looked right in their circular movements low over the ground, wings rounded, light underneath, but yet too far away to be absolute sure and only I saw them. If you're searching for a Life Bird you want a satisfying look, not a fleeting glimpse. By the time we were back together, darkness had set in and the shadowy phantoms had vanished. We had been tantalizingly close, but that didn't count.
The short-eared owls will have to wait until another day but we had created a memory which would last far longer than any dime store bric-à-brac.
Happy Birthday, Ellie.