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Core Samples

Nocturnal binoculars

"Who?" it asked. Whoooo? Instantly familiar. Actually the question hadn’t been posed in such a manner for 20 years or so but right away, you knew. From the first low-pitched call, the first brief hoot, the lay of the land became evident. You were in the presence, once again, of a Great Horned Owl. You were blessed.

Actually, the hoot came solo. There was only one. Certainly not the norm, but sufficient for even a sensory-challenged rambler, trespassing upon the Chalet grounds near the northeast corner of the now full-pooled Deer Creek Lake, to pinpoint the nocturnal raptor’s location.

This time, the open space of an empty barn with belfry didn’t avail itself. This time, the target perch was somewhere inside one of the thickly thatched conifers standing regal, yet somehow out of place, below the lodge. The trees, more than likely transplanted for effect, provided the perfect out-of-the-way, napping spot for one who worked the graveyard shift.

Quietly circling the tree in question, while visually searching for a silhouette that didn’t belong, brought about tip-toeing and the holding of one’s breath. Tension has a way of mounting when the avoidance of a ready-to-snap, dry twig becomes paramount. Most especially, if one is not breathing.

If there was bad karma playing out in that business, it was very much a "ticky-tack" foul. We all have our peace disrupted at one time or another by the unsuspecting footfall. How could we possibly deserve penance when it is the "keenness" of the owl itself that drives our curiosity?

Certainly, even if one is trespassing, there is an absence of malice involved in the nature of the vagabond. All that is desired is to marvel in wonder. There is something about the highly evolved among us that elicits both trepidation and joy — and it’s a siren’s call that is difficult to resist.

So you attempted to bring covertness into play. You crept silently, looking for an interloping form among the branches. As if, from that very first hoot, you hadn’t been in the crosshairs of fierce-looking yellow eyes bulging from a hidden head slowly following you through its neck-twisting, 270-degree arc.

Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. But it had to be that tree. Owls of all stripes are known to play hard to get, so you knew it wouldn’t give away its location any time soon. Just relax and search methodically — by quadrant, maybe. It was a commitment. No way were you leaving without a yarn of discovery.

Ahhh! Yes! There he sits — the gender an easy deduction. In size, the male is the lesser in this world. Not a small owl, by any means, but a good few inches shorter than the "grande dame" of the first encounter. As a "favor" to his tightly wound-up neck, you continued on around the tree until you were face-to-face.

The dude stared down as if to say, "My father looked just like Jack Palance." There is a sense that he has seen and heard it all. You wouldn’t want to cross him. His ear tufts cause you to think he can hear your thoughts. And those eyes, with their yellow irises, stare straight into your heart.

As with other owls, they have a remarkable binocular vision that allows them to distinguish even the most chameleon-like prey from its nook in the habitat. Their visual perception is stereoscopic. Great Horned Owls were Hi-Def before High-Def was cool! Theirs is a wide-screen world. Not much escapes their notice.

Wonder what they thought when the "Provo River Project," with its dams and diversions and general all-around desperation, disrupted their comfort zone back in the 1930s. Interrupting their nap was nothing compared to that. When the Bureau of Reclamation came a-calling, it wasn’t like the local waterfowl could sign a referendum and get it on the ballot, or anything. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The BOR built Deer Creek Dam right on the Provo River, of course, but that really wasn’t enough water to irrigate the Utah and Salt Lake valleys so they went about grabbing more. The relatively close-by watersheds of the Duchesne and Weber rivers appeared to be the most promising. The owls could fill you in on all of that.

What they did was build diversion dams and conveyances whereby water could be transported from one drainage to another. The Duchesne Diversion Dam, they put up on the North Fork, and then dug a six-mile tunnel through the Uintah foothills until they hooked up with the Provo along the Mirror Lake Highway near Soapstone Basin.

To abscond with the Weber water, they constructed a diversion dam just east of Oakley and, from there, ran a canal nine miles across the Kamas valley to a spillway near Francis. Obviously, the Provo River rules! The transfer of water rights in the West is a wonderful sight to behold. Owls know all about it, but then, they can see in the dark.

Time is on their side. They can perch above the trail that’s above the tracks that run alongside Deer Creek and ponder the evolving landscape and changing habitat. No doubt they can pinpoint the exact location where the Heber City Council sold out to the big-box baboons and their transparent promise of a better tomorrow. The owls saw it coming. Those decisions were also made in the dark.

The owls have been on watch since Etienne Provost and other trappers from General William H. Ashley’s bunch first dipped their toes in these waters back in the 1820s. Then John C. Fremont and his outfit rolled through in 1843 and that led to Brigham and the boys puttin’ down stakes and outlining a Provo River plan a few years later. You just know the owls were working overtime in those days.

Great Horned Owls are extremely solitary by nature — courting and mating has just got to involve a dating service and, once they decide to proceed, humongous amounts of quite subtle foreplay. If there were any way of doing it by e-mail, they would no doubt make that adaptation. But who gives a hoot? Why, the Great Horned Owl, that’s whoooooo! They are nocturnal, and at their very best in the dark.


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