Friday, February 12, 2021

When the Geminids Fall


Oil on Belgian Linen - 22 x 28

    They say it’s easy to be superstitious when the stakes are low. It’s because you have nothing to lose. In this case, I was willing to contemplate a little superstition. I think the Geminids were to blame. Tomorrow I might feel differently, but the Geminid meteor shower was at its peak on December 14, 2019. What else could have caused such an interesting course of events? Fate? Coincidence? Oh, what a bore those can be. The allure of celestial causation was seductive and exciting, free from risk. Why not blame the Geminids? 
    Dec. 14th fell on a Saturday and my sleep had been restless. From 3 am onward, I tossed and turned. At 5 o’clock, I gave up and went downstairs. I didn’t raid the refrigerator, turn on the TV, or grab a book, I just headed straight for the couch. My intentions were simple: get more sleep. For some people, that might not seem strange — the getting out of bed and moving to the couch for more sleep part. But for me, it was highly unusual. In fact, I can’t ever remember doing that unless I was ill. I curled up under my heated throw and got comfortable. It didn’t take long before the heat kicked in. Just give me a few more winks, maybe another hour or two, I thought. I started to doze. By 6:30 am sleep had arrived. I know that because that’s when I awoke to a short succession of tempered thuds on the porch. It sounded like someone had rolled a giant square snowball outside of my window. Thud, thud, thud. Then it stopped. About the same time, there was a squeal, a strange undeniable squeal. 
    Always thinking of birds, I thought of Blue Jays. Well sort of, but not exactly. It’s amazing how fast the mind processes thoughts. Before moving to Duluth, I’d never heard the calls of fishers (the mammals) or vixens before, but I thought of them. Neither matched what I heard. My mind returned to Blue Jays but that just didn’t make sense. Jays that occasionally overwinter in Duluth live just down the hill, closer to Lake Superior. It’s a lake that rarely gets mentioned for being warm, but temperatures are relative. By its shores, it can easily be five or ten degrees warmer than a mile or two away, so Blue Jays can survive winters a little closer to the lake, especially in neighborhoods with feeders. Still, they’re uncommon. 
    My home is just far enough away from the lake where Blue Jays know it’s too cold. If one were in my neighborhood, it surely wouldn’t have been making noises in the dark, in the dead of winter, at 6:30 am, with temperatures in the teens. Not only that, winter had come early. She’d dropped almost 22 inches of snow the last weekend of November, and by December 14th, we’d already gotten over 46 inches of snow. Birds can be unpredictable but I dismissed my Blue Jay theory quickly. I simply played the odds knowing what I know about Blue Jays, winter and my home. 
    Meanwhile, the Geminids kept falling. The celestial season was punctual and far away without the world paying too much attention. Time marched on and I was no more interested or speculative about far off events causing strange noises on my porch any more than the next person. 
    The squealing stopped. It was over just as soon as it started, but if it lasted two seconds it seemed like ten. I sat up from my slumber, pulled the curtain back from the window behind me and peered out. Just enough light reflected off the snow from nearby houselights to reveal shapes and outlines, but nothing seemed amiss. My heart pounded. Something was out there. 
     I sprang up from the couch and took a few steps over to the other porch window on the east side. There, to my utter amazement sitting on the floorboards was the faint outline of an owl. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I froze, stunned. Its wings were spread out, and it was rocking back and forth sideways. Its back was towards me and the only thing separating me from the owl was dim light, five feet and a window. 
    Eventually its rocking subsided, but it still wobbled every now and then. I began to wonder if the owl was okay. Several moments passed and then everything got stranger, not with the owl but with me. I became dizzy. Really dizzy. Soon, the dizziness turned to faintness. I didn’t know what was happening. I’d never felt that way before, at least not to that extent. It was really weird. I pleaded with myself to feel better, but it wasn’t working. Did I get up from the couch too fast? Was I too excited to see an owl? Did I need more sleep? If I didn’t lie down quickly, I was going to pass out. 
    I reverted back to the couch and collapsed. The room spun around and around but at least I remained conscious. In the meantime, what about that owl? 
    Terry was still asleep, and as I lay on my back, a great debate raged in my head. Should I wake him? Would he hear my shouts? If I shouted, would the owl hear me? I didn’t want to disturb it. Maybe I should just wait it out until my head felt better. But what if that took too long? What was wrong with me? Am I okay? For this bird lover, I was in a serious quandary. Maybe if I just laid still for a few moments the dizziness would pass. But that owl! When it comes to wild birds, time is of the essence and my patience was running thin. 
    I shouted softly — twice. The bed squeaked and the floor boards creaked. He heard me, thank heavens. When he came downstairs, I explained to him what was going on. Puzzled, he just stood there looking at me, glancing towards the window. Should he comfort me, or go see the owl? I was slightly amused by his predicament, but my patience had run out. “Go! Go see if the owl’s still there!” I exclaimed. “Is it still there?” Yeah. “What’s it doing?” It’s just sitting there. “Are its wings spread out?” Sort of. A little, I guess? It’s just sitting there. Really still. Wow. 
    Yeah, wow. 
    After about a minute, I tried sitting up. I felt okay. Then I stood up. Still okay. I walked over to the window and we stared at the owl together. We exchanged a lot of thoughts, mostly about its well-being. The wobbling had stopped, and now it wasn’t moving at all. The last few minutes afforded just a hint of more light and I had the suspicion we were looking at a Barred Owl. I couldn’t see the ear tufts of a Great-horned and its size was too small for a Great Gray, but clarity was pitiful at best. It was just too dark. We waited and watched. It felt like an eternity. 
    Then, the owl turned its head. It was momentous because up until then, it had remained as still as a statue. I wanted to grab my camera but I knew the flash would disturb it. In addition, neither of us wanted to make any kind of movement because we might attract the owl’s attention. The last thing we wanted to do was be the reason the owl altered its course of action. We remained motionless and whispered to each other in the predawn darkness. 
    And then, in a split second, the owl shifted. There was movement to its right. “That’s a rabbit!” I exclaimed. “It was sitting on a rabbit!” I recognized the rabbit’s gait and faint silhouette. It was injured. I knew that by how slowly it hopped away from the grips of the owl’s talons. When the owl chased the rabbit towards the front door, we lost sight of them momentarily, but then saw the owl on top of the banister searching for the rabbit. By then, the rabbit had slipped under the porch. It was gone. I took my camera out and shot my first photographs of the owl then. Even though I knew my photos would be terrible, I wanted to document the bird before it flew away. 
    After several moments, the owl flew to the utility wires above the ditch. There it stayed, perched in the wind for around ten minutes. I gathered it had given up on the rabbit because it faced south, away from our house. Dawn had arrived and I confirmed it was indeed a Barred Owl. It spent a long time on that wire before it flew out of sight towards a nearby cedar. 
    An adrenaline-filled morning transitioned into a calm, sunny afternoon. Terry and I chatted non-stop about our experience, and all of the concern we had about the owl rocking back and forth and wobbling was explained. It had been sinking its talons into a soft, squishy, plump rabbit. Surprisingly, we never saw one speck of the rabbit until its dark shadowy figure made its escape. The owl’s feathers covered everything from behind. 
    Early that afternoon while making raspberry truffles in the kitchen, I noticed an unusual blob high up in the trees. My binoculars confirmed it was a Barred Owl. Could it be the same one? I grabbed my camera, winter coat, neck gaitor, headband, gloves and headed outdoors. After an arduous journey about the length of a football field through waist-deep snow — I actually entertained the thought of getting stuck! — I stopped at a clearing and took some photos. Occasionally the owl looked at me with squinty eyes, but mostly looked away with sleepy eyes. I gave it condolences for its loss with a qualifier in case I was speaking to the wrong bird. Later, when examining my photographs, I noticed blood-stained feathers on its chest and pink-colored tail feathers. This was indeed the same owl! I was thrilled to have met it. 
    I never did find the rabbit under our porch but later in the week there was a rabbit hopping around with a severe limp on its right back foot. It’s possible it was the same rabbit, but I’ll never know. 
    In retrospect, nature — or perhaps the Geminids — dealt a cold-hearted blow to both animals. Breakfast, once in the grips of the owl, was gone; the rabbit, having escaped death, was injured. Neither came out victorious, one went hungry and the other suffered. Some people make wishes upon falling stars. Perhaps in this case it would’ve been fitting to have wished specifically upon the Geminids — for the owl never to go hungry and the rabbit never to suffer. When the Geminids fall, there are lots of wishes to be made. Maybe if I’d known the Geminids were falling that day, that would’ve been mine.

12/14/19  7:08 am, a terrible photo but this is my
first predawn photo of the owl sitting on the banister
after losing the rabbit

12/14/19  7:13 am, owl on utility wires after giving up on finding the rabbit

12/14/19 early afternoon, showing bloody breast feathers

12/14/19 tuft of rabbit fur found near porch

1/8/2020 The suspected 'lucky' rabbit with a limp.
Possible puncture scar on cheek nearer the nose.

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