On the Wednesday before Christmas, I probably should have been doing last minute shopping or making holiday preparations. Instead, I found myself on a country road in southern Bartholomew County straining fervently to notice something out of the ordinary in the surrounding landscape.

I was looking for a Snowy Owl, a resident of Alaska and northernmost Canada during most of the year according to a field guide published by the National Audubon Society. Sometimes these birds experience an “irruption” which is a move further southward from their normal home range. This is usually a sign of a healthy population needing to migrate in search of additional food. I learned there had been a sighting in the area, and I was determined to get my first glimpse of this elusive beauty.

The location was a short drive from Hope, but the journey was really years in the making. In my younger years, I noticed that I had developed a strong interest in the outdoors and particularly birds. Now I’m not sure how this interest developed. But let’s face it, we see birds almost everyday: birds singing, birds flying, birds on the feeder, and birds playing tug of war with worms in the yard. It’s easy to want to know more about them. By the time I was in 5th grade, I was really into birds. I had learned that people who studied birds are called ornithologists, and I thought that was what I wanted to become when I was older.

I had (still have) a little book that kids used to have called “School Years.” It was a place to keep track of the names of teachers, friends, and other memories from each year of school. There was always a place at the bottom of the page to check a box on what you wanted to be when you grew up, or a line to write a different answer. Instead of choosing fireman, policeman, cowboy, astronaut, soldier, or baseball player, which are certainly all fine vocations, I penciled in ornithologist, spelled correctly I might add.

Unfortunately, today’s road was nicely paved which led to quite a bit more traffic than expected. I think it was also a commuter shortcut and was quite busy. Needless to say, it was hindering my ability to look carefully for the owl. I found a cemetery that I could pull in and park. I scanned the area carefully with my binoculars looking for the tell-tale white plumage paying particular attention to the irrigation units in the bare fields. The area I was searching was near a major route to the county landfill. You can imagine how many errant plastic bags distributed by the wind caught my attention.

Ten minutes after arriving at the cemetery, a woman slowed her vehicle on the road, rolled down her window and asked if I had seen the owl. I told her no, but the cemetery was a good place to park off the road. She pulled in behind me and told me she had driven from South Bend and had also stopped in Madison County, Indiana earlier in the day to photograph a Snowy Owl spotted there. We talked about the owl and birding in general. I explained that I considered my birding status to be amateur, and I had only recently been making an effort to travel and see birds not common to Indiana.

We were soon joined by another enthusiast from Seymour who knew the location of our elusive prize. It was sitting below the irrigation unit, partially hidden in a shadow. It was difficult to see through my 8 x 40 binoculars, but it was a sighting nonetheless.

I knew from a post I had seen in my Facebook feed that there were reportedly not just one Snowy Owl, but two in this area. I noticed vehicles pulled off the road further north and decided to move up in hopes of a closer view of the other bird. My new acquaintance asked me to text her if there was an owl for closer viewing. I pulled off the road, parked, and was immediately rewarded with a view of the second Snowy Owl.

After a few minutes of glassing, I turned to one of the other birdwatchers who had a large telephoto lens on his camera. “Have you seen it move?” I asked. I couldn’t help but think it looked an awful lot like a trash bag through my binoculars.

“I’ve seen it turn its head several times,” announced the birder closest to me. I learned that he had driven from Burlington, KY, near Cincinnati in hopes of seeing the owls.

My new friend and her dog were on their way over, and I began to worry that this might be a trash bag she had told me about spotting earlier. Looking through my binoculars again, I thought I saw it move. “That’s a relief,” I thought to myself.

I had decided I was going to stay until the owl took flight or it was too dark to see, whichever came first. I was soon rewarded with the bird taking wing and flying across the road to the irrigation system. With strong silent wing-beats, the owl quickly covered the distance to his new perch. He was much easier to see now that he was closer and up off the ground. It only took the owl, an expert hunter, a few minutes to spot his dinner from the new vantage point. In an instant, he glided down and grabbed a mouse. I watched him pick it up and tilt back his head, swallowing the mouse whole. Then he flew back to the perch, perhaps ready for a second helping. In the fading light, I realized that it would soon be time for my own dinner and climbed back into my truck. On the way home, I realized how grateful I was for the afternoon’s experience.

I thought about the interesting people gathered there on that country road, the distances they traveled and their varying degrees of experience and equipment. I think it was the camaraderie that most impressed me. Perfect strangers were swapping phone numbers and stories. The quest to see these two birds brought very different people together for the same purpose.

I think one of the awesome points about bird watching is that it is accessible to almost everyone. A simple bird feeder outside the window of your house will bring a wide variety of feathered guests to enjoy. Even without a feeder, the opportunity to see birds occurs almost daily. They are a true gift from God and often underappreciated for the beauty and joy they can bring.