From where I sat, impatiently idling in the deserted intersection beneath a single swaying red light, I looked across to an illuminated bank sign at the corner of Rt. 36 that confirmed it—1:42 p.m., 13 degrees.
Although I was heavily dressed in layers of fleece and tightly tucked into my warmest of woolen socks, my toes still held the chill they had gotten in my brief walk to the car, though its heater had been sending a steady blast of warm air past them for the last 2 hours.
Crossing Ohio just to the north of Dayton, driving east along the wind-buffeted route that took me past sprawling farms, their wide fields white and quiet, I would soon arrive at Big Island Wildlife Area, 35 miles to the north of Columbus. For the most part, the travel was easy. Only as the clusters of homes and small villages stretched further and further apart to become barren flatland, did drifts and icing-over become a concern.
Already, everything about this place, everything about this day made it a perfect one for winter birding.
Months before, this drive would have been a very different one. In May or June, I might have seen an oriole or a tanager flitting through the branches of a big, old tree in town, indigo buntings singing from the top of the tallest corn stalk beside the road, woodcocks displaying in the evening light above the grassy fields. Missing them and many others who have flown south to warmer climes, I forget that in their place, others have arrived for just a brief stay.
For those to our north, this is the south.
And a winter’s day can show them at their finest.
Asio flammeus, Latin for flaming or the color of fire, rests on the ground, roosting in trees only when snow cover is extreme. Hidden within the tall stems of golden grasses or standing still in a field of cut corn dusted with white snow, their buffy breasts and tawny tones make them almost invisible.
The ride home seemed somewhat warmer, though in passing the bank, the sign still registered only 13 degrees.
Perhaps it was winter's cold that was slowly lifting.
Or maybe it was the afterglow of watching the flaming owl.
The short-eared owls of Big Island Wildlife Area