By Joann M. Ringelstetter
On Saturday, March 23, as Ruth and I traveled past the Capital Brewery in Middleton on our way to color Easter eggs with our nephews, Ruth informed me that a Great Gray Owl had been seen hanging around by the brewery. The following day, I drove to the brewery to look for the owl first thing in the morning, but I couldn’t find it. There were two or three other birders there who were also looking for the owl. I returned in the afternoon and saw one other birder, but again, no owl.
I called Ruth and told her that I had struck out and she said that someone had reported on the Wisconsin Bird Network (a discussion group for birders) that the owl was seen around 9:30 a.m. near the drive-thru of a sandwich shop about a half-mile from the brewery. I said, “Do you think he had bad luck on his morning hunt, so he decided to go to the drive-up?” (I wonder if they have breakfast sandwiches for owls.)
Around 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 27, as I was about to jump into the shower, a friend of mine called and asked me if I had heard about the owl. I told her that I had looked in vain for it on Sunday. She said, “I know it’s almost dark, but he’s sitting on a sign near Capital Brewery.” So I grabbed my camera gear and headed to the brewery.
When I got there, I saw a small crowd of 10-15 people gathered near the entrance to the brewery and, sure enough, there sat the Great Gray Owl on top of the One Way sign. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I hurried over there with my camera and quickly took a few shots before it got too dark.
Great Gray Owls reside in the boreal forests of Canada, but have journeyed south this winter in search of food. Their typical diet consists of small rodents, such as voles, which are in short supply this year in the northern forests, according to Ryan Brady, a DNR research scientist.
On Friday, March 29, I had the day off, but had a morning appointment, so I returned to the brewery around 11:00 a.m. to see if I could find and photograph the owl in brighter light. I had hoped for an overcast day, which provides nice even lighting, but it was very sunny. What I really wanted, however, was to just find the owl, no matter what the lighting.
As I drove past the brewery, I could see cars and people coming and going further down the street from the brewery, so I parked my car and followed someone’s directions across the snowbanks and over the railroad tracks to a large tree at the edge of the post office parking lot. The owl was sitting on a branch and there were 30-40 people gathered to watch him.
There were people holding up cell phones, point and shoot cameras, and SLR cameras. There were people with tripods and large expensive lenses. There were people with binoculars and people without cameras OR binoculars. One such person was standing next to me and she meekly asked me if I would consider sending her a photo or two for her bird-loving sister. So I handed her my business card and told her to email me and I would send her a couple of photos.
Another person who was standing next to me said that she was sitting at the car dealership waiting for her car and she saw the article about the owl on the front page of our local paper. As soon as her car was ready, she rushed over to get a glimpse. At one point, the owl bent down to clean the feathers on his foot and got a bit tangled with a small branch when he lifted his head again. I took quite a few photos that morning, but it was difficult to capture the owl without branches in front of his face.
Around 6:00 pm that night, I returned to see if he was in a better spot for photographing, but he was still sitting on the same branch. But this time, there were at least 75 people gathered there. Word had certainly gotten around, especially due to the article in the paper. And people were traveling long distances to add this bird to their life lists.
The following day, which was Saturday, March 30, I tried to find this mysterious creature three different times, but he was nowhere to be seen. And each time I drove down Terrace Avenue past the brewery, I saw the disappointed looks on the faces of those whose hopes were dashed that day. One person from Milwaukee reported that he was there for seven hours that day and didn’t see it.
On Easter Sunday, I decided to sleep in, so I didn’t go looking for the owl in the morning. And, because no one had seen him on Saturday, I thought maybe he had finally left the area. However, around 1:30, I got the feeling that I should go one more time. So I headed down to the brewery and there was a small crowd gathered just down the street. The owl was sitting on the inner branches of a large pine tree.
I snapped a couple of pictures and then he swooped through the air and landed on top of a small pine tree on the other side of the street. A cold front was moving in and there were occasional gusts of wind that ruffled his feathers and seemed to almost topple him from his perch.
Sometimes the wind made him look like he was having a bad hair day.
In spite of the wind, he sometimes appeared to be sleeping.
Sometimes he watched birds fly across the sky above him.
And sometimes he turned his head 180 degrees, making it look like his head was on backwards.
This beautiful bird was certainly a gift from heaven. People of all ages were given a rare opportunity to see nature at its finest, from small children to a man three days from his 99th birthday. I wish this owl safe travels as he returns home to the northern forests.
Hoo-Hoo-Ho-o-o-o! And Happy Shunpiking!