rare visitors from the north

Snowy Owl at Hart-Miller Island, Baltimore County, Maryland, USA. © 2018 S. D. Stewart

Snowy Owl #1 at Hart-Miller Island, Baltimore County, Maryland, USA. © 2018 S. D. Stewart

 

Snowy Owl at Hart-Miller Island, Baltimore County, Maryland, USA. © 2018 S. D. Stewart

Snowy Owl #2 at Hart-Miller Island, Baltimore County, Maryland, USA. © 2018 S. D. Stewart

primeval


Em El and I took some much-needed vacation time last week. Part of our journey included a return trip (for me) to one of my favorite places in the South: the Congaree National Park. This park protects the largest remaining tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest on the continent. The average canopy height of the trees is over 100 feet, with many trees well over 150 feet high, including the National Champion Loblolly Pine, which tops out at 167 feet high and almost 15 feet around. Here I am below in front of one of the Congaree’s mighty giants. To put things in perspective a bit, I am about 6 feet 2 inches tall.


On this day, we spent about 6 hours exploring the swamp and it held many wonders for us. Migrating warblers and vireos flitted through the park, often coming quite close, and we frequently heard the wild cry of the Pileated Woodpecker, a bird that is in my mind the perfect ambassador to a place like the Congaree. During our sojourn, we were also lucky enough to spot two Barred Owls. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was the small herd of wild boars we startled (the startling was mutual, believe me) as we hiked through one of the more remote areas of the park.

Between the massive trees, the clumps of Spanish moss hanging everywhere, and the overwhelming primal feel of the place, I felt like we’d traveled back in time, and I couldn’t help wondering what it must’ve been like before our ancestors tore through here like a pack of Tasmanian devils, chopping down trees and draining swamps like there was an endless supply of both.


All I can say is I am so glad that the National Park Service exists. It is arguable that it was too little too late, and that in the grand scheme of things, the NPS protects a mere shred of the natural beauty that once adorned this country. But if it weren’t for places like the Congaree, it would be so much harder to drive through the South today and see how suburban sprawl eats up more and more land. I think of my trip to the Congaree like a pilgrimage. I return to the city renewed inside, for a little while at least.

owlish

While making dinner in the kitchen last night, I heard a great commotion among the songbirds in the side yard. It’s probably that owl again, I thought. Sure enough, when I pulled back the curtain and peered out the window I saw a large barred owl perched in literally the same exact place on the same exact branch as last time. Likely to be the same owl, I figured. The tufted titmice were leading the mob, as usual, sounding the alarm for all the other birds in the area. There is something about these tiny birds banding together in the face of danger that really gets to me. They are so brave! Here is a giant predator many, many times larger than they are, and yet they boldly confront it with no sign of fear! If only all of us humans displayed such bravado. Perhaps then there wouldn’t be so many downtrodden among us. It’s staggering to think of a world in which everyone refused to be bullied, and instead stood proud and defiant in the face of abusive authority.

dinner guest

[photo by Denis-Carl Robidoux, used under Creative Commons]
As I sat down at the table for dinner last night, I looked out the window and there was a barred owl in a nearby tree staring right back at me with its depthless black eyes (think Brother Justin in Carnivale). The owl hung out there on the same branch for a good 45 minutes. At one point, a ragtag band of songbirds landed on some branches about six feet away from the owl and raised a noisy ruckus, trying to scare it away. But it remained impassively in place, occasionally swiveling its big head from left to right, or lifting a talon to scratch its fluffy body. Every once in a while something would catch its interest and it would zero in for a closer look. Clearly the owl’s presence had stirred up the local songbird population, as the air was resonant with nervous chatter and warning cries. A predator in our midst! Raise the shields! I found myself cheering on the brave cluster of titmice, chickadees, and cardinals that threw down their petty differences to unite against a common foe. It was quite a dinnertime show!
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