Years ago, Calvin, a friend of mine, explained that the first turkey vultures of spring will be seen around our little town on the first of April. I had never affixed a date to their return. Now, it has become an unspoken competition to see who can see the first turkey vulture of spring.
I have observed that the vultures are here for almost exactly six months. The saying, “You can’t prove a negative,” applies to determining exactly when they leave. Just because you haven’t seen a vulture in October doesn’t mean there aren’t any silently soaring somewhere over San Juan.
I heard the first northern flickers a few days ago. My field guide says that the flickers are non-migratory in Utah, but I almost never see one in winter. When I was young and my lips were supple enough for complex whistling, I could mimic the flickers well enough to call them to me. Back then I could do a pretty good meadowlark, too.
I think ravens are my favorites of all the birds. They have often been my sole companions while hiking out in my beloved canyons. After all these years I can think of fewer than a dozen raven nests. One is in an Anasazi ruin tucked back under a ledge. Another sits atop a rickety, wooden, windmill tower.
I feel a connection to the land when I am in the company of the ravens. They provide a bridge from me to the ancient Anasazi who also walked these canyons and listened to the grumps of the ravens. But I realize that it is a one-sided affair. The ravens are doing what ravens do. The fact that I am there to notice, to bathe in the beauty of the moment, is of no interest to the ravens.
The nighttime talking of the owls is one of the most stirring experiences in nature. The talking is best experienced when you are alone, when it is dark and cold. I don’t know if it helps to open your mouth to listen to such distant conversations, but for me, it seems to help capture the sounds.
But again, the hooting of the owls is a one-sided affair. They are doing what owls do, and the fact that I am stirred by the listening is of no consequence to them. Here is a favorite owl story. If you have heard it, bear with me.
I was riding my bicycle up a long hill in the dark one cold winter night. Ahead of me was the hoot-hoot-hooting of a great-horned owl. When I drew close enough to see the owl silhouetted against the night sky, it flew on up the road and settled in the top of another juniper tree. This time, as I rode past, the owl did not fly away. It just kept hooting to the night.
When I reached the top of the hill, I stopped, got off the bike, dried the sweat from my face and head, and put on another layer of clothing. I turned on my light and began the icy blast back down the road. The owl ghosted across in front of me.
The next day, I told of the experience to friends, among them a Navajo woman. She was deeply alarmed for me. She said it is bad when owls talk to you, but if they follow you and talk to you, it is really bad.
I wasn’t worried. I felt that it was just an owl doing what owls do. I felt blessed to hear it, to make a wonderful memory of owls and the night.