An hour or so after dawn last Sunday, I took our small kayak out for a paddle on Cherry Lake. As I stepped out of the cabin I heard the begging calls of the young Great Horned Owls that fledged recently in the valley. No surprise there. I'd been hearing them for a week but only catching a distant glimpse of one now and then. At night we'd hear their screeching come through the cabin walls from somewhere on the other side of the pasture. The next morning I'd walk out the door and find a breast feather on the grass. Young owls moult from their natal fluff into adult plumage through the summer months.
As I launched the kayak, though, I was ignoring the owl sounds, tuning it out as I had for most of the weekend. I brought the camera with me hoping to take some shots of the Forster's Terns. Soon after I was on the water I saw what I thought were a couple of night herons perched along the far shore in a clump of dead willow branches, just above the surface of the pond. The herons fish from the shoreline willows almost daily.
I lifted the camera and took a first shot. But when I blew up the image to get a closer look I found owls instead of herons.
That's one of the parents on the far right, the mother I guessed, considering her size. She left soon after she saw me coming, but the young ones stayed for a series of photos as I drifted nearer in the kayak.
There's no way to plan such an encounter but that's what I love about a 6 am paddle on the lake. It is one of the only times in my life when my will seems utterly useless and I am left with whatever the graces of water, willows, and cattails will bring my way.
"Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them." Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "The least we can do is try to be there."