Just at dusk, during that sweet September time of hot weather, clear skies, and calm sea, my husband and I sat outside on the front deck as the sunset’s red streak stretched the whole horizon from the Pacific out of sight to nearby islands, growing more, then less intense as light faded.
The bats began their nocturnal patrols, swooping near to us, banking right or left, and zooming off. Tiny, silent fighter jets – engrossed in searching for prey (bats eat a third of their body weight in insects each night) – over the garden, over the lawn and bluff.
One evening (while everyone was still here for the Labor Day visit) – Lady Baby abed and the evening’s movie not commenced – Mrs. Hughes and I sat for a moment on the deck speaking of bats and the barn owl that visited earlier in the summer.
I told her about the huge ruckus on an August night that made us aware of owls – screechings from forest and bluff, piercing, repeated, a little scary, and very loud. You think screech owl because that’s what it sounds like or Barred owl because they are plentiful and troublesome in this area, but those owls have classic hoots like Lady Baby’s “hoo hoo.” Our noisy visitors were barn owls.
That screechfest lasted just one night, but for two weeks a lone barn owl screeched from a tree on the bluff every night.
I identified our visitor’s voice on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s owl page (here) as the “territorial scream and advertising call” of a barn owl. We grew accustomed to the nightly visitation and the raspy rhythmic cry, over and over from 1 a.m. till 4 a.m.
Once when it landed low down in a tree , we shined a flashlight, revealing the unmistakable white, heart-shaped face above a tawny body. (Now that I’ve read and really enjoyed Stacey O’Brien’s “Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Story of an Owl and His Girl,” and know more about the sensitivity of owls, I’m not proud of this.)
Barn owls live mostly on mice, and it’s said that when perched in a tree they can hear the heartbeat of a mouse. Our lawn and the bluff teem with plenty of trembling little hearts. (Some days I lament that things are slightly out of control here in the garden, but I love that we have insects and field mice – food for bats and barn owls.)
That evening while Mrs. Hughes and I lingered, a sudden movement caught our eye in the near dark – a pale shape settled on a tree branch – white face, silent – the barn owl back. Maybe bidding farewell, for whatever inspired the night-after-night calling is long over for this year.
And so is summer.