By Felipe Guerrero
A band of coyotes yip and howl excitedly as the last reaches of light lift off the rounded peaks and icy corners of the Granite Dells. The winter sun lowers and finally its glowing crown disappears from the western skyline. A pulse of frozen air washes over the rocks and the temperature sinks. A large oak, anchored on the edge of a grassy cove, stirs with the first cold breath of night, its branches waving stiffly in the breeze.
In the tree, a Barn Owl shifts her position, awakened by the waning light and the sound of wind through the leaves. Her dark eyes open widely and stare out on the field to the north through a small window in the branches. A second icy breeze surges through the old oak. Without a sound she is gone. Sailing silently on long, pale wings across the darkening sky, she appears ghostlike. Her body is white from below, lightly speckled across her breast and belly. Above she is cloaked in soft orange and beige tones, dappled with gray.
As she flies, her outstretched head intently scans the earth below. Her sharp eyes, fixed within a mask of fleecy white feathers, perceive even the smallest features passing beneath in unimaginable detail. Banking left and right she turns her ears to the ground, listening for movement from her small, favored prey. She descends, gliding stealthily over shrubs and grasses in the direction of a familiar opening. Moving deftly, floating over rocks and grass with ease, she pauses and hovers momentarily upon detecting the rustling of a field mouse. She directs her gaze precisely at the location of the distinctive sound.
She is a skilled auditory hunter, capable of using only her ears to locate prey buried deep inside layers of grass, and on this day, snow. Confirming the presence of her quarry she reaches forward swiftly, with talons spread, and drops silently into the grass. Standing motionless and looking to her feet, a moment passes before she leans forward and returns upright again with the rodent hanging lifelessly in her bill. She tosses her head once, skillfully flipping the mouse headfirst into her mouth, and in an instant she swallows her captive whole. She’ll digest what she can of the field mouse and return the parts she cannot to the soil, in the form of a pellet composed of fur and bones.
For a moment longer she remains standing in the snow. Her head swivels fluidly from left to right, surveying her surroundings. The evening is cloudy and frigid, but she’ll continue to eat well tonight.
Nearby, a male Barn Owl betrays his presence with a single, prolonged, rasping hiss. Come warmer weather she’ll construct a nest from shredded pellets on a ledge in his territory, and he will bring her many more field mice than she can eat. For now, in silence, she sweeps her wings forward, rises from the ground, and sets into a glide, vanishing into the darkness.
Felipe Guerrero is the Education Coordinator at the Highlands Center for Natural History and serves on the board of directors for the Prescott Audubon Society.
Visit Prescott Audubon Society at PrescottAudubon.Org. Contact them at Contact@PrescottAudubon.Org.