Eye-gazing with an owl

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The other day, while I was hiking through the forest, a barred owl rose suddenly from a clump of mossy logs on the side of the trail. It launched itself in an upward diagonal across my path and settled on a branch of a nearby maple tree. Turning about to face me, it looked straight into my eyes.

I stopped in my tracks and held my breath. No need to raise the binoculars: the owl was so close, less than a dozen feet away. There was the soft round face, adorned with alternating circles of cream and tan feathers, radiating outward to a band of dark brown. There was the hooked yellow beak. And there were the enormous black eyes, watching me steadfastly. Although my bird guide states that the barred owl “does not generally tolerate close approach,” this one appeared calm and unafraid.

I gazed back. We held each other’s gaze for a long moment, and then, the owl blinked slowly once, twice. The way a cat blinks at you when you call to it lovingly.

I blinked back. The owl and I exchanged blinks. All the time gazing at one another in the still moment. To up the ante, the owl winked, closing one eye and regarding me fully with the other. I winked back. This mutual eye-gazing, blinking and winking continued for a good 10 minutes or so until at last, it was I who broke the spell, propelled by that hard-wired human instinct to shy away from miracles and keep moving.

I walked quietly past the tree, still gazing at the owl. It remained where it was, then cocked its head to one side, and — with a look, I swear, that was both teasing and endearing — winked me goodbye.

I read somewhere that if you look deeply into another person’s eyes for just three minutes, the intimacy of such gazing melts the heart’s defenses and you can’t help but fall in love. I don’t know if the owl fell in love with me, but there’s no doubt that I fell in love with it. Accuse me of anthropomorphism, it doesn’t matter. I walked on light-hearted, “fulfilled, floating/homeward…”

This poem by John Haines evokes the gratefulness that sparkles within as I recall that wordless and mesmerizing encounter.

If the Owl Calls Again

at dusk
from the island in the river
and it’s not too cold,

I’ll wait for the moon
to rise,
then take wing and glide
to meet him.

We will not speak,
but hooded against the frost
soar above
the alder flats, searching
with tawny eyes.

And then we’ll sit
in the shadowy spruce
and pick the bones
of careless mice,

while the long moon drifts
towards Asia
and the river mutters
in its icy bed.

And when the morning climbs
the limbs
we’ll part without a sound,

fulfilled, floating
homeward as
the cold world awakens.

John Haines



  1. Wendy G Sarno

    September 15, 2018

    Ah, Mary Lou, what a stunning encounter! I was enthralled with every word as I imagined myself beside you on the trail sharing winks with such a great bird. The owls have been coming close again near my house and calling in the night. Once, years ago I had an encounter with a barred owl. Here’s a bit of the poem I wrote afterward:
    ” Once, in the evening as the light fell

    and the sun settled orange behind the

    trees, as I sat on the fallen body of an old

    cottonwood playing the simple tones

    of a cedar flute into the twilight, she came

    out of the woods without a whisper to

    perch at the tip of a bare oak limb where

    she turned her curious gaze upon me and

    listened. Only a brief moment before she

    turned her back without response, lifted

    and vanished into the thickening dusk.

    There can only be in moments like this,

    when Wildness comes silently out from

    the hidden roosts of Mystery to meet us,

    a breathless shimmering in the web of time.

    Something shifts. Nothing in the singing

    night air will ever be the same.”

    It sounds like this experience for you, too brought a shimmering in the web of time. Thank you for sharing it so beautifully with us.

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      September 18, 2018

      Dear Wendy: thank you for this exquisite poem, which captures the feeling I had so well: “a breathless shimmering in the web of time.” Yes!

  2. Janice

    September 15, 2018

    Reading this gave me shivers Mary Lou. It was as if I was right there with you and your owl, blinking and winking and falling in love. Both the Haines poem and Wendy’s speak to the way we are entranced by our rare and brief encounters with the beauty of wildness. I am enriched by your description, feeling fulfilled myself.

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      September 18, 2018

      Dear Jan – thank you! You’re quite right – these moments are entrancing, so vivid they become lodged in our memory as touchstones of grace. xoxoxoxo ML

  3. Sherry

    September 20, 2018

    Extraordinary, Mary Lou! First to have this splendid experience and then to share it so beautifully. Thank you.

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