Photo credit: Dan Lory

There is no describing the thrill of peering into a dense tangle of pine branches and seeing a pair of bright yellow unblinking eyes staring back at you.

It was a bitter cold January day--5 or 6 degrees fahrenheit, no wind, a cloudless sky. As long as you're dressed for it, in my opinion there is not a more beautiful time to be walking the woods. Hoarfrost glistened on the wintergreen, the air crackled and sparkled, the ground crunched with each step. There was a dusting of last night's snow barely covering the ground, and I was following the tracks of a rabbit, just for the fun of it, to see if I might get a photo of the bunny sitting in the open soaking up the warm sun.

I lost the rabbit tracks for a moment, then found them again near a scraggly pine tree and was about to continuing on when something caught my eye. One area of the pine seemed more dense than the rest. It wasn't obvious; it was more like a feeling. Something was different. Like when Mom gets her hair done and I see there's something different, but I'm not sure what, and I'm afraid to ask her if she got her hair done because she probably told me she was going to get her hair done but I wasn't listening, and she probably had it done two days ago but I just noticed today... anyway, it was something like that.

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So I stopped and peered at that dark area in the pine tree, moving my head up and down, back and forth, the way an owl does when it's trying to size something up. And that's when I saw the two eyes. I froze, it held its pose, and the two of us just stood there staring at each other for probably three full minutes until I slowly backed away, hoping to get a better look from a different angle. I retreated about 50 feet and started to slowly circle the tree, the eyes following me until I got around to the south side of the tree.

There, now in plain sight, was a beautiful Long-eared Owl, the best look I have ever had of this marvelous creature. It was perched comfortably on a branch, its feathers puffed out, making it look like a fluffy, oversized pinecone with eyes. It did not seem scared or alarmed--more irritated at being disturbed from its peaceful rest. I could almost hear it thinking, "Jeez, I hope that human just moves on and doesn't make me have to abandon this perfect sunbathing spot."

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I obliged, after taking plenty of photographs, of course. Then, after backing away--too far now for good photos--I stood there for another 10 minutes or so, just soaking it in. Less than an hour ago, that small pine was just another tree in the forest. Now it was a thing of magic enfolding a living creature, still sitting there calmly, much more at home in those beautiful surroundings than I could ever be. I felt honored to share that space. I wanted to bottle the moment, take it home, savor it again and again.

I started shivering as the adrenaline rush subsided, and I knew I had to get moving. I headed for home. Nature had blessed me with enough magic for the day.

I've been back to that pine, but have never see the owl there again. I don't need to. I can still see those eyes.

Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.