Fiction by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Oliver doesn’t know exactly what makes him sit up in his sleeping bag — but he’s so glad he does. Perched on a low-hanging branch a few yards away sits a great gray owl!
Trying to remain still, Oliver stares. Great grays are rare; he might never see one again. The owl looks bigger than it is; Oliver knows its inflated size has to do with lush feathers covering a rather small body. But it is the owl’s face that is so arresting: flat and round, with a pattern of concentric gray and black feathers that frame the lemon eyes and amber beak.
Then, without a sound, the owl opens its massive wings and takes off into the night.
Oliver is still staring when he realizes his dad is sitting up too. “Did you see that?”
His father nods, a look of wonder on his face. “A great gray owl … I never thought I’d actually see one.”
“Too bad we didn’t get a picture,” says Oliver. “But I can still record it.”
Oliver has been a birder since he was 10. He knows how special that owl is and reaches into his backpack for his journal, so he can note the sighting.
Later, as he is drifting off to sleep, Oliver thinks about the owl. What is it doing here, nearly two hours away from the Sierra Nevada mountains where it’s reported to live? Is it on its way somewhere else, or has it made its home nearby?
In the morning, he has an answer. While his dad makes pancakes and bacon, Oliver wanders around the campsite with his binoculars. Mourning doves coo in the trees, and he sees a finch and a brown-headed cowbird. Then he sees a big nest in an Oregon ash. Great grays don’t build their own nests but use those of other large birds. Could this nest be a home for the great gray he saw last night?
Without telling his dad, he climbs up the tree and peers inside. There are four smooth white ovals, each about 2 inches long. He has seen pictures of the great gray’s eggs, and these look just like them! He fishes out the old digital camera he and his dad use on their trips, takes a bunch of pictures and shimmies down again.
Back at the campsite, he shows his father the photos. His dad agrees: owl eggs.
The next day, Monday, Oliver’s dad is off to work. It’s June, and school has just let out. Oliver has a late breakfast with his mom. She’s reading the newspaper, then stops and hands it to him. “Look at this.”
Oliver reads the headline: “New Shopping Mall Under Discussion.” The new mall will have a cineplex, a sporting goods store and one of Oliver’s favorite places to buy jeans. Sweet.
But when he reads where they want to put it, his smile fades.
“That’s right’s where Dad and I go camping.”
“I know,” says his mom.
“They can’t do that!” Oliver says. “We saw a great gray owl there. Do you know how amazing that is?”
“Is that a rare bird?” asks his mom.
“Rare and endangered, at least in this area,” says Oliver. “Its wingspan can reach 60 inches, Mom. It’s got the longest tail of any known owl, and it’s one of the most skillful hunters.”
“Sounds like you know a lot about these guys.”
“I do. That’s why I don’t think they should build that mall.” He looks down at the article again. “There’s a town council meeting on Tuesday. Can I go?”
“That’s an excellent idea,” says his mother.
But when Oliver bikes over to the meeting, it’s clear no one takes him seriously.
“That’s nice that you’re interested in birds, son,” says the town council president. “Why don’t you write a paper for your science class?”
Oliver blushes; he’s 14 but the town council president is treating him like he’s 5.
“I have pictures of a nest,” he persists. “With eggs in it. Owls are breeding in that area.”
The president glances at the pictures. “The date stamp on these says 2000; that’s 15 years ago!”
“How could that be? I just took them!” says Oliver. But he knows the camera is old. Maybe there was a malfunction with the mechanism.
“I have no idea. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting to conduct.”
Oliver leaves the meeting room and goes outside. As he unlocks his bike, the door opens and out steps one of the men from the meeting.
“I’m Ben Hadley, and I wanted to say that what you did in there was great. Not many guys your age would have the courage to speak out like that.”
“But he won’t listen,” Oliver says.
“You’ve got a smartphone, right?” asks Ben. Oliver nods. “Make another trip. Use it to take the pictures that will prove your point.”
That night, Oliver tells his dad about the meeting and the new pictures he needs to take. “Can we go again?”
“Not until next month,” says his father. “I’m flying to Dallas this weekend and Aspen next.”
“Next month is too late,” Oliver says. “The town council is going to vote really soon.”
“I’m sorry I can’t help you, Ollie,” says his dad.
After dinner, Oliver pedals over to see his best friend, Dylan, and tells him the story. “I want to go again, but my dad can’t drive me.”
“Maybe Jake could take us.” Jake is Dylan’s older brother.
“Really?” Oliver brightens.
On the way home, Oliver’s mind is busy developing a plan. The geotagging and date/time-stamping features on his cellphone’s camera will prove where and when the pictures were taken. And the GPS coordinates will be included, so he can easily lead the council members to the tree. Now if only Jake will say “yes”!
Two days later, Dylan, Jake and Oliver are driving toward the campsite. The sky is gray and filled with clouds.
“Looks like rain,” says Dylan.
“Hope not,” says Oliver. But he has his phone and a rain poncho. He’ll get those pictures no matter what. Only, when they get to the campsite, Oliver can’t find the Oregon ash that holds the nest.
“It was right here,” he says. They walk round and round, getting nowhere. A light drizzle starts to fall. “You guys head back to the car.”
“No way, dude,” says Dylan. “You know you have to have a buddy.”
Jake goes back to the car to wait while Dylan follows Oliver. Fortunately, he’s got a poncho too.
Oliver remembers the tree had a long branch extending in one direction, like a finger pointing. He’ll find it. And after about 10 minutes, he does. He snaps a picture of the tree. Now it’s raining harder and the wind is blowing. As Oliver nears the tree, a branch smacks him in the face. Ouch!
Dylan waits on the ground as Oliver starts to climb — up, up, up. When Oliver reaches the nest, he sees it’s tilted perilously; on the ground below are three shattered eggs. Only one egg is left. He snaps pictures, puts the phone away and shimmies down.
But on the way, his poncho gets caught in a branch and tears. Now he’s being pelted by the rain, shirt soaking up the water like a sponge. He lets go too soon and falls with a thud to the ground. When he tries to get up, he can’t — he’s twisted his ankle.
“Are you OK?” Dylan rushes to his side.
“It’s just my ankle,” moans Oliver.
“Call Jake,” Dylan says. “I left my phone in the car.”
Trying to ignore the shooting pain, Oliver pulls out his phone and frantically taps. The battery is now dead! Now what? Can he crawl to the car?
Then he hears his name, and there’s Jake! The boys hoist Oliver up and get him home.
Three days later, Oliver shows up at the town council meeting on crutches. He shows the photos to the members, and even the president has to admit that they are convincing. And using the GPS coordinates contained in the photo files, Ben is able to drive the members to see the nest. Oliver goes along.
“There’s only one egg left,” he says when they arrive. “But inside, there’s a great gray owl ready to hatch.”
“I move that we consider several other sites for the mall,” says Ben.
While the other members are seconding the motion, Oliver looks down where the crushed eggshells are scattered and sees a sleek, gray feather. He picks it up.
It’s from a great gray owl, possibly the one that was nesting in this tree. It’s illegal to keep a feather from an endangered bird, so he sets it down again. But even the sight of it is special, like a gift meant just for him.