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Boxes in a Tree (on the Eastside Hill)

Submitted by Editor on January 3, 2011 – 9:11 pm | Print or Email »No Comment

words and photo by Aaron Ellringer |  In the warming early spring days of 2010, our family liked to spend time outside, enjoying the crisp air and sunshine. It wasn’t time for tapping the maples yet, so we were walking trails a few blocks from our house.One day my son asked “what are those boxes in the tree?” We looked up and saw two boxes in the crook of an old oak.

“SSSShhhhhhhhhhh!” I hushed the kids. We slowly approached the boxes and soon discovered that the boxes were owls. Big ones.

After admiring them, and slowly approaching them until they flew up into the pines, we went straight to our friend and neighbor’s house. She’s lived on the hill for a long time and knows more than we do about neighborhood creatures. “Oh yeah, the other neighbor told me she saw some Great Horned Owls while snowshoeing this winter.” After looking up owls in ten different reference books, and online, we still weren’t sure the owls were great horned. They didn’t have the stripes that lend them the alternate name “tiger owl.” As we followed them over the next few weeks, we did eventually conclude they were Great, their growing tufts tipping us off.

Awed by their presence, we became obsessed with the owls. We called our neighbor almost everyday, asking if she’d seen the owls. We collected pellets, which were plentiful and massive. Mouse skulls, squirrel bones, hair. We kept them largely a secret, fearing any more human curiosity would drive them away. One day we broke our rule and told a few kids. They stopped to pick up some rocks, then sprinted saying “let’s get ‘em!” That enraged my son, who wanted to go after the kids. Lesson learned.

Almost everyday we’d sit there, just watching the owls watch us. If a dog walker came by, we’d look another direction, taking care to not reveal the purpose of our rest. I changed my route to and from work to include a pass by the owls.

Our small black cat (occasionally outdoors) went missing for a few weeks. I was sure it was the owls, and scoured the forest floor for pellets of dear Choucho. It turns out our next-door neighbor had taken our cat, only discovering this after he called the number on our “missing” poster and trying to extort us for $300 to get him back (another story for another day, for sure).

As the owls grew, their range increased. I could regularly find them by listening and looking for the murder of crows, who were constantly harassing the owls and scavenging scraps. As spring chores came on hard , our infatuation with the owls transferred to the dripping taps and overflowing buckets of maple season.

We have since learned that Great Horned Owls mate in January or February, so we’ll be checking the old eagle and crow nests again this winter. It is experiences like these that help us appreciate the seasons, our neighbors, and the foresight of our City to set aside land in parks and greenways, ensuring humans aren’t the only species calling Eau Claire home.

Photo at top: Here are the two boxes we stalked for a few months in early 2010. As juveniles, Great Horned Owls aren’t immediately identifiable to novices like us. The ears (tufts, really) were barely forming and the colors were light.

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