December 3, 2010

Free To Fly

Every March I venture on my annual March birthday fishing trip to the Merced River with Mike Mast. Mike and I are both March babies. We fish for trout and large-mouth bass on a section of the lower Merced River between Merced Falls and Snelling. The trout are mostly rainbows, but every once in a while you reel up a brookie. That section of the river is closed to fishing from October 31 to March 15. Mike's birthday is just past mid March, and mine is just before the end of March, so we try to catch a day right after the opening and in between our birthdays, and we celebrate both birthdays on the river.

Mid-to-late March is a beautiful time to fish the lower Merced River. All the grasses and the trees are green and fresh, and wildflowers are starting to bloom. The water is cold and the fish are frisky, but the snow melt hasn't got into full flow, so the current isn't too swift. And the spring fishing is awesome, especially for the fat rainbow trout which have swum unmolested for six months.

Then, every October, just before the season closes on that stretch of the river, we venture again to the Merced River. Fall is another awesome season to fish the Merced, with deciduous trees in full color, summer grasses faded and brown and flowing over the edges of the limestone cliffs like brown frosting, and a few ripe blackberries still hanging on the vines that thrive on the riverbanks.

It's hard to get a boat on the section of the Merced River that we fish, and a lot of people don't even know you can fish there, so we usually have the river to ourselves. It's like being in another world when you're down on the river. I'd tell you exactly where it is and how to get there, and how to get a boat on the river there, but I am sworn to secrecy on pain of death. The river runs deep and slow in stretches there, and high cliffs overhang the river. In other stretches the river is shallow, and the current is swifter, and heavy river brush and oaks line the river. Wildlife is plentiful, and we have seen deer, coyotes, beavers, river otters, and a crazy lot of birds of every kind.

One time Mike and I were slowly drifting down the Merced, lazily fishing for trout, and we saw a pretty good sized owl perched in a small cave about three quarters of the way up a limestone cliff overhanging the water. That section of cliffs has about a thousand mud-swallow nests hanging on it. When the mud-swallows are nesting, you really don't want to be in the area, because a thousand mud-swallows flitting around overhead can become a messy situation.

The owls' nesting cave was about 30 feet above the water, and the river there is about 50 yards accross. The cliffs make a great nesting spot for mud-swallows and owls and other birds, because the whole face of the cliff is safe from intrusion by coyotes or snakes or other earth-bound predators.

Shortly after we saw the first owl another adult owl appeared from inside the nesting cave and perched, momentarily, with the first owl. Then both adult owls disappeared into the cave and there was a commotion, and we could see both adult owls, wings slightly outstretched, herding two young owls to the edge of the cave.

It was a fascinating and rare view into the world of nature, and it soon became apparent that the adult owls were going to herd the young owls out of the cave and off the edge of the cliff. It was clearly something the young owls did not want to do, and they resisted mightily. But the adult owls persisted. Once out and off the edge of the cliff, the only good options for the young owls would be to fly to the other side of the river, or fly along the river for a ways and land in the trees at the end of the cliffs, or to turn around and fly back to the nest. The other side of the river seemed the most obvious choice, and would be a relatively safe place for the young owls to fly to, as it was lined with oaks and brush.

Within a minute the adult owls had the young owls perched on the edge of the nesting cave and flapping their untested wings nervously, and then, nearly simultaneously both young owls were pushed out and began to fly for the first time in their lives. Both owls were jittery and both flew clumsily straight ahead. One of the youngsters made it almost all the way across the river, and on landing in the water swam quickly to the shore and got out. One of the adults flew immediately there and stood with the young owl as it shook the water off. The other young owl only made it halfway across the river, and then struggled against the slow current but could not make headway to reach the other side. As it struggled, the young owl's energy sagged, and as the current pushed the bird further and further down river, it struggled less and less and we could sense it was not going to make it. The adult who had stayed in the nesting cave was watching intently, but was powerless to assist the young owl while it was in the water.

After watching in silence for a while, Mike asked me what I thought we should do. We discussed the situation, and both agreed we would not interfere. This was the natural world as God ordained it to be. We were privileged to observe it in its glory. We were privileged to observe the first successful flight of an owl in nature. And we were privileged to observe this moment of failure and struggle for survival. We did not interfere, and soon the young owl stopped struggling and lay its head down in the water and drowned.

I have thought often of that day, and what lessons may come from it. What instincts told the adult owls that was the right time? Was it the right time? Is that the way God intends it to be for all species? Free to fly, and yet also free to fail; free, even, to die. Would more time have made a difference for the owl that drowned? What emotions did the adult owls experience, if any?

As I drift down the river of life, the answers to these questions are not yet known to me. Perhaps they never will be.

1 comment:

  1. Learning not to interfere is a hard lesson, whether with owls or people. So often we think we know the answer, but then our interference makes the situation more complicated - maybe not worse, because our intervention may be part of our lesson, too - and we get drawn into something we wish we had not.

    Reminds me of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby... and yet I did rescue a small bird recently and watched its recovery to fly away... for how long I don't know and I also don't know how I may have tipped the ecological scales by that 'rescue.' Gosh... so many questions and so few answers, what?