It was a crisp, sunny October day at Carver Park Reserve, a sprawling regional park near Lake Minnetonka with long hiking trails through its acres of prairie, wetland, and forest. The red-tailed hawk several feet away beat its wings forcefully for a moment before settling back down on the handler's leather glove. Like all of the captive birds of prey at the park's nature center, the hawk had been injured in the wild and nursed back to health at the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center. Now, healthy but permanently disabled, it and the others served as "educational ambassadors" to help teach visitors about raptors.
In the enclosure beside the hawk was a large, beautiful white and brown owl that had come to the park after being struck by a car and losing its left eye. The sign mentioned that it was a barred owl, named for the striped markings on their faces and chests. At night, they make a familiar call: "Who cooks for you?"
"Ah," I said, "I know you. I've heard you many times."
But I'd never had much luck actually spotting owls. I had only caught brief glimpses of them in the wild, usually just flashes, soaring silently through the night. The Educational Ambassador lazily blinked his remaining glossy black eye.
Taking to the trails, my husband and I wove through the forest, traveling past towering white oak trees interspersed with black cherry, aspen, and sugar maple. The yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn were creeping into the monochromatic green. There was a subtle sense of urgency in the woods, a faint whisper from nature to enjoy the sun's warmth and the rustling music of the turning leaves—one last bit of socializing and merriment before winter's arrival.
It was hard not to also notice the particularly dense blanket of green that covered the forest floor in places—buckthorn. The spindly gray branches of the highly invasive European plant were heavy with dark berries this time of year, a temptation for the neighborhood birds who spread the seeds.
Onward we tramped, traversing marshes by boardwalk, past a scenic lake overlook, and into an area with large, old trees. I spotted a particularly striking tree just off the trail—an enormous, majestic sugar maple, decked out in bright yellow autumn regalia. This required closer inspection.
Now, I have a confession to make: I'm a tree hugger. You can call this cliché—a crunchy, dreamy, odd approach to experiencing nature. But sometimes you just need the perspective granted from wrapping your arms around a century-old (or older) forest giant. So I did just that, my outstretched fingertips coming nowhere close to touching on the other side. Turning my head upward, I rested my chin on the dark, deeply furrowed bark and gazed up into the golden canopy.
And it gazed back!
To my shock, there were two large, shiny eyes peering inquisitively down at me. They were set in a white, lightly striped, familiar face. It was a barred owl—the closest I'd ever seen an owl in the wild before—cocking its head side to side and meeting my blue eyes directly with its onyx ones. I gasped with delight and told my husband to look upward.
"I don't see it," he said.
"Here, stand where I'm standing," I said. "You have to hug the tree to really see it."
With some skepticism, he embraced the massive trunk, and soon gasped happily as well at the sight above. The owl took him in a bit, then decided it had probably had enough of these strange visitors hugging its tree and slowly turned away. With a few quiet wing beats, the owl took off, gliding stealthily through the hardwoods.
I was giddy with the magic of it all. Only minutes earlier I had seen a barred owl up close in captivity. Now here was its wild kin, living in a woods treasured by Minnesota residents who had at some point in their lives learned to love owls, trees, wetlands, and quiet fall hikes close to the hustle and bustle of the city. As we completed our hike back to the nature center, grinning ear to ear, I reflected on how very much we all need nature. A tree hugger's perspective had reminded me of that.