It’s funny how our ideas on the best things in life change as we age. When I was a little girl, the best thing in my life was Christmas time. My Decembers were filled with anticipation for celebratory things like decorating the Christmas tree, family gatherings, sledding parties, and exchanging Christmas gifts.
But things have changed. While I still enjoy the sparkle and giving traditions of the season, I have discovered other enjoyments that I treasure during this time of year. My December thoughts now turn to the landscape and the hidden gifts within. My hungry eyes drink in scenes of fleeting natural beauty, and I ponder the miracles of their making, such as frosty fog or the intricate details of a snowflake.
Winter months where I live on the flat, “tablelands” of Illinois can be pretty stark-looking. But I’ve learned that the barren appearance of the landscape can be deceiving. All is not as it seems. There are treasures to be found.
About ten years ago, just 3 days before Christmas, a friend, who shares a love for birding, reported seeing a Snowy Owl on top of a telephone pole on her drive to work. When my husband and I learned this, we tore out the driveway. Then, we followed her directions to the site where this great creature was last seen.
The day was cold, foggy, and a bit drizzly. Visibility was not good. As we drove down the country highway and I looked out across the fields and the long line of telephone poles, I thought locating the owl would be like finding a needle in a haystack. It could have flown off anywhere since the hour it was first spotted, and our chances of seeing it were slim. But then suddenly, there she was. High atop a pole, watching cars pass by. We held our breath as we slowed down the vehicle. We couldn’t stop because there was traffic behind us. So we drove a short distance and turned around to head back. We pulled off onto the shoulder of the road, where we could take a closer look. But when we got closer, the owl grew wary and took off, gliding over a field –disappearing into the fog.
The entire experience lasted perhaps only a minute or two. But it was a minute of complete mystical magic. We had been given a tremendous gift – the opportunity to come face to face with a visitor from the Arctic reaches of our continent — a brave and beautiful creature, driven on a thousand-mile mission for a lemming — an animal that no doubt had also laid eyes upon polar bears, arctic foxes, and the dancing northern lights of the Aurora Borealis. All other traditional thoughts of the Christmas season went out of my head at that point, and Decembers have never been the same since. What we experienced that day touched me profoundly and helped me realize that there are so many magnificent everyday gifts surrounding us.
Since that incredible first sighting, I have been privileged to have two other Snowy Owl sightings over the years. So, for me, December now marks the beginning of a 4 month-long quest to find Snowy Owls.
My husband and I go for drives in the country, scanning the ground for white lumps, which our spotting scope often reveals are plastic shopping bags littering the countryside. We also check out the tops of every telephone pole and fence post. So many times, we’ve raced to a place where a snowy owl has been spotted, and then we can never locate it. Often we return home and learn that someone else was in the same place and photographed it just minutes before or after we were there. Snowy Owls are the elusive pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
It has been about six years now since I’ve seen one. And though I am frustrated that I haven’t seen one in a while, I know I will have the privilege again. Diligence will pay off. In the meantime, while I search, I will enjoy other precious December gifts. There will be snow buntings eating grain spilled along the roadsides, bald eagles perched high in naked trees, and prairie grasses preserved in crystal. These are just some of the wonders the season gifts to us. We only need to train our eyes and minds to receive them before they disappear.