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Wise Old Hill

I live in Bernal Heights, a San Francisco neighborhood that circles a vaguely conical hill, at the top of which is an open, green space park. It's nice work-out-ly hike to the top, and once up there, I've got 360-degree views of the city, and the companionship of my neighbors (and many of their dogs). It's a nodding, acknowledge-your-presence sort of companionship most of the time.

A couple of weeks ago, I left my house around 7:00 and headed out for a walk around the hill. Takes about 45 minutes, round-trip -- steep up, slope around the top, another steep up, a steep down. The sun was already behind the hills to the west, and the sky to the east was pink and peach. A scattered dozen windows high in the East Bay hills reflected the last rays of the sun like patches of liquid fire.

I walked and talked to myself out loud, except when other people passed by. Great light. Great place to live. I was bundled in sweater and down vest, and the wind was brisk on my face. Two-thirds of the way around the hill, at the tail end of the second steep up, I came around a curve and saw a knot of people, maybe eight people, all looking up into a big tree.

 I stopped and looked. I couldn't see what held their attention, or what the woman with the video camera was aiming at. Then I heard the first hoot - whoo. whoo.

I looked again, and on my third scan of the branches, I saw the owl. Big owl, at least a foot tall, solid and barrel-shaped, tufted ears silhouetted against a pastel sky. Couldn't see many features, because the owl was between me and the light part of the sky, and dusk filled the shadows.

Everyone smiled at each other. We were suddenly a small, impromptu community, Owl Watch, pop. 8.

Other people jogged by, glanced, didn't stop. A woman with a big German Shepard paused to see what we were all staring at.

Another whoo, but this one from another direction, and deeper, more resonant. Maybe just an echo? Another whoo, and I looked and saw the second owl, in an adjunct tree, facing the other bird. Twenty feet off the ground, separated by thirty feet of airspace.


I could see the second one a little better, see a puffing-up, a swelling that revealed white chest feathers, a contraction of what would be the neck on a human, bringing torso and head together, that preceded the next whoo.

One more call, then the second bird ruffled himself (her?), stood tall, and took flight, wingspan of three or four feet, majestic. He soared up, then glided 100 yards or so, to the far edge of the open walking space, and settled on the branch of a tree so huge I can see it from my front gate, 10 blocks down the hill.

The first owl had turned and watched its mate fly away, and now sat motionless, looking off in the direction of the enormous tree.

I walked back home in near-darkness, just enough light to look up as I passed beneath the big tree to see the owl on its new perch. Walked down a flight of wooden steps that edge a neighbor's garden, and was on a residential street again, back in the world.

I have walked beneath that first tree at the ends of a dozen days since, always looking for a glimpse of the owl. Last Friday, there was a plastic-sheathed, printed letter on a post near the tree, and a trio of calla lilies, tied with a green ribbon. The night before, a neighbor had been looking under the tree for owl pellets, and found instead the body of one of the Great Horned Owls.

The letter said the man had taken the body to an owl sanctuary, to find out cause of death. Predator? Human? Nature? The flowers and an attached card mourned the bird and the loss to the hill.

Last night, same walk, same curve, another knot of people.

The remaining owl was back in its tree.

But no whoo.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 17th, 2007 05:58 pm (UTC)
Oh, dear. I was hoping for a baby owl story. But how good of that person to report back to the rest of the group. I hope there's final closure, too, and that it doesn't turn out to be a pellet gun!
Apr. 17th, 2007 07:54 pm (UTC)
This is just tragic, beautiful but tragic. You made me all teary in my office.
Apr. 18th, 2007 12:39 am (UTC)
That's such a sad ending. akirlu saw an immature bald eagle this morning, and I was going to link your stories to each other.

But very well told. I like the fact that there were flowers and a mourning card.
Jul. 31st, 2007 11:15 pm (UTC)
wise old hill
beautifully written. I'm the fellow who found the body of the first of the owls. My wife and I left the note, and my photos are at http://www.flickr.com/photos/artolog/sets/72157594542903043/.

As you probably know, the second owl died recently, possibly of the same virus. We will be holding an informal memorial on the hilltop in the coming weeks.

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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