I hadn’t really planned on birding last Sunday morning. It was going to be an especially hot and sticky day in Wilmington, and mid-June is a slow time of year. It seemed like a good morning to try to make up a little bit of my perpetual sleep deficit. But I woke up around 8:30, made some coffee, and figured, what the hell, may as well go out for an hour or two. I might see something interesting.
So I picked up my camera and binoculars and headed up Market Street. I wanted to try a new site, the woods adjoining the UNC-Wilmington campus, but as I passed Port City Java, on the spur of the moment I changed my mind and decided instead to check out the stretch of Burnt Mill Creek that runs behind the coffee shop.
I’ve had a few wonderful days along the more northerly reach of the creek, which is reliable for Yellow-crowned Night Herons, but I’d never walked this particular stretch, and a family of Barred Owls had been reported there.
I turned around, parked in the PCJ lot, and set out to hike north along the west bank. Burnt Mill Creek is a small, slow-moving stream, full of turtles and big carp that have a habit of noisily catapulting themselves two or three feet out of the water (the carp, not the turtles). It was already steamy in the sun, but a grove of massive oak trees cast some welcome shade along the wide grassy course. A trio of Great Crested Flycatchers chased each other from one leafy branch to another. A raptor high up caught my eye, and as it turned I caught a good look at its white head and squared-off tail: Mississippi Kite, my first of the year. As I watched through the glass, it tucked its wings and plummeted dramatically toward the treeline.
The usual suspects showed themselves on the walk north: a grackle or two, the ever-present cardinals, chuckling Red-bellied Woodpeckers. No owls. But as I turned around to head back, a couple walking a dog told me they’d seen an owl on the other side of Chestnut Street. “It was there just now, on a branch over the creek,” the man said.
I thanked him and made my way quickly back to that section of the creek. I didn’t see anything immediately obvious, but as I paused — I always see so much more when I stop for a while and just wait — a Barred Owl suddenly launched itself from a hidden perch and plunged down on something at the water’s edge.
And then another, and another, and another. Within a few minutes, three immature owls and one adult were at work in the trees and the creek along the muddy bank, hunting crayfish. The youngsters were full-sized and equipped with big-boy flight and tail feathers, but their rounded heads were still covered in pale fuzz, and they had about them that discernible but difficult-to-define quality of youth: a bit of wide-eyed innocence, a certain lack of dignity and grandeur. Gorgeous, stunning even — but a little goofy. In the way of kids, they chased each other here and there, shooing their siblings off their perches.
They were aware of me, certainly, but they were not shy and paid me no heed. I huddled up against a tree trunk and snapped shot after shot. The morning sun was behind the birds, so the light wasn’t ideal, but they were extraordinarily cooperative subjects. One of the youngsters snatched a crayfish out of the muck and flew straight toward me, landing on a limb not 15 feet away to pluck the unfortunate crustacean apart.
I watched and photographed them for 45 minutes as they ranged up and down the creek. At one point I heard a raucous cry and saw that a Yellow-crowned Night Heron had joined the owl party.
Something stirred in the foliage above it: to my surprise, it was one of the Barred Owls, perched just a few feet further up the same limb. The heron glared at something off to the right, bristling and flaring its crest feathers — and then the object of its attention, another of the owls, rushed toward it and chased it off its perch.
Most mornings when I’m able to go birding, I hustle out the door in a rush: I plan my trip and get my coffee set up the night before, throw on my clothes, let the dogs out, grab my binoculars and camera, and bolt. There is often, to be honest, a certain amount of frenzy to it: Gotta get out there! If I dally, I might miss something!
On this morning, though, I didn’t even decide to go until I’d lazily gotten up, poured some coffee, surfed the web for a few minutes, hemmed and hawed. And once I did go, I was on my way to one site when I had a last-second change of heart and pulled a U-turn. I wasn’t expecting to see much of anything. It was all about as un-planned and un-prepared as a trip can be.
But it turned out to be one of the most memorable mornings of birding that I’ve ever had, an up-close encounter with a family of owls as they hunted. It was a reminder that, while planning and preparation are all well and good, it’s not a bad thing on occasion to just relax and make it up as you go.