October 15, 2015
Night falls quickly in October.  Shockingly quickly when daytime temperatures still flirt with triple digits.  Shockingly quickly during the calendar month that features the very best time to be outside in the desert.  So It is already dark, the glow on the mountain long gone, the windows thrown open in anticipation of October’s nighttime promise.  Deva is at the computer.  As I walk into the room we hear an eerie sound float through the gloaming from the front yard.  We look at one another and simultaneously exclaim “What the heck was that!?”

It is October 10.  Somewhere on social media I have noticed October 10 has been declared “Patti Smith Day” in Boston.  All day Because the Night has been playing in my head.  Smith’s iconic song predates social media.  Is rock’s hall of fame Smith still relevant in this age of social media?  Sorcerers and shamans, and today’s songwriters, have been concerned with the night since time out of mind.  A lot of things happen out there, some good, much of it bad, all of it shrouded in mystery, while most of us sleep.  And for birders “belongs to owls” will follow Smith’s refrain.

We flip off the light and listen intently, parsing the darkness with our ears just as we would the daylight with our eyes.  Odd that the human brain works in this way until you remember there was a time long ago when our survival as a species depended on this ability to flip this sensual switch.  Until you remember this is the way the shrouded world of owls still works.  How owls so readily fill the niche of night that is uncomfortable and mostly unwelcome to our species.  How owls survive.

We have no owls on our yard list.  We stumble outside, into the night.  The odd sound goes unrepeated.    Surrounded by the night, we sit and contemplate the possibilities.  There are really only two—Great Horned Owl and Western Screech-Owl.  We know the former frequents the greenbelt, two blocks from our house, and presumably hunts and breeds there.  We know the latter inhabits residential areas a few miles away.  October is a month of dispersal for owls, parents harassing young of the year out of the home territory prior to beginning the nesting cycle anew.

On our block we have a couple large Aleppo Pines, certainly potential nesting sites for Great Horneds.  In our yard we have a huge old Saguaro, replete with inviting cavities which might interest screech owls.  Our neighborhood has feral cats and rumors of roof rats.  A nighttime raptor could survive here.  A nighttime raptor would be the ultimate yard bird for serious birders.

Serious birders know all the amazing details of owls’ special physical adaptations—binocular vision with six times more light gathering capability than ours, fourteen neck vertebrae for 270 degree rotation, feathers evolved for silent flight, zygodactyl toes, cryptic coloration, facial discs that concentrate sound.  We go back into the house.  She flips the lights on.  I smile at her and flip them off again.  We slip from the world of owls into the world of Patti Smith’s song.  “Because the night . . . belongs to lovers.”

On the morning of October 13 I am stretching at our front yard fountain after my morning run.  It is 6:10 am, barely light.  A mottled, shadowy shape, shockingly large and flying two feet off the ground, passes down the front street.  Not enough light for positive identification, but I feel my skin crawl.  I can think of only one thing it could be.