Each night the owls circle our rancho. While we sit quietly or lay in bed, we hear the low swoosh of their wide wings as they move from perch to perch. All night, every night, we hear their call, sounding as a thin sheet of aluminum does when you slowly shake it. Throughout the night we hear them – with a multi-layered background of insects’ electric choruses, toads’ trills, the occasional grunts and whimpers of the monkeys as they reposition themselves, the crazy cackle of the more colorful creatures, leaves and seeds dropping like ammunition on the roof. That owl’s quiet, regular whoo-whoo-whoo haunts us and reminds us that there is a hunter out there.
There is usually only one owl but sometimes two and they are Spectacled Owls. They may be perched close to each other and chant in unison, but usually the calls come from different spots as if two fugitives are sending signals out of their dark hiding places to each other.
Roberto says they have been this verbal since Miel, our young cat, moved in a few months ago. Roberto believes the owls are calling for the cat to come out. Maybe Miel understands the danger as he doesn’t venture outside of the safety of the rancho during the night. He spends hours in the day bouncing about like a happy kid in a safe playground, hunting lizards, spiders and large grasshoppers. We can hear him chasing the shadows within several meters in the dark of evening when we are still awake and close by. He’ll hunt and catch rodents and amphibians at night in the shelter of the rancho, but we watch him listening to jungle sounds coming out of the dark forest and he knows to stay home.
There was one morning when Roberto went outside just after daybreak and there was no sign of Miel – not on the bag in the corner where he often sleeps, not on the covered daybed, not in any of his usual places. I woke up, sensing that Roberto was searching for something.
“The cat is gone,” he said with a sad voice. I got up and with some trepidation we both looked around the immediate area, wondering if we were going to see tuffs of his white and golden hair stuck to a tree or the remains of his body dropped on the bank of the stream. It felt like inevitability had come to call.
We aren’t worried about any other creature getting the cat, at least while we are at home, but the constant calling of the owl has been unnerving to say the least. Roberto has told me on more than one occasion how the owls will grab their prey with their big talons, and rip its eyes out with their lethal beaks. Not a nice image to be considering on a beautiful sunny morning.
I’ve been certain that the young tomcat (which will never be fixed according to Roberto’s rules of live and let live) will disappear when it gets old enough to hear the sound of the feline sirens in the neighborhood. The closest cats live through the bush and across the highway. Despite the owls and snakes, I think that dogs, cars and Miel’s own animal impulses are the biggest threats to a long life for our kitty.
As it was, about the time the sun was on the rise and we were on our first cup of coffee, a white and gold streak came flying up the path from the road, meowling and leaping like it had just dodged the Animal Control truck. We don’t know where Miel went, what took him there, and how many hours he was gone, but we have no doubt that something scary happened to him out there. He didn’t stop ranting, jumping, scampering up and down trees, and visibly shaking in his puss-n-boots, for most of the morning until he finally crashed and slept the rest of the day. And he has never gone missing since.
My guess is that, whatever it was that caught his attention and made him venture out that night, he must have been faced with some danger when he was out in the dark. Perhaps he had to wait, hiding in a safe place till dawn made it safe to make his way home. And my guess is that it could very well be those owls that scared him so.
Yesterday began as another beautiful sunny day. Roberto was across the stream, on what is the land I’m in the process of buying, gone to collect firewood. He returned and told me, “There is a dead owl over there.”
I followed him and sure enough, not fifty meters from here, we came across the still very preserved body of one of the owls with the wobbly-aluminum cry. We couldn’t make out what had killed him except maybe that he had broken his neck. It had been a recent death, as nothing was eaten away nor were there ants crawling on him.
His talons were exceptional – I shiver thinking how they could easily pick up little Miel and hold him steady while his big beak did the rest. As I said, the thought makes me shiver even as the hot sun makes me sweat. But what a magnificent creature he was.
This week we celebrated Costa Rica’s Independence Day. Along with most of the other Central American countries, they became independent from Spain in 1821. They celebrate this on the September 15th with annual traditions. On the evening of the 14th they have marches with torches and lanterns through their communities. This represents the way a woman spread the news 189 years ago – by walking all night with a lantern, she managed to get the people out to vote for independence the following day.
We went into Cahuita to see all the paper lanterns and hear the drummers. There were hundreds of people in town for the event which seemed to take forever to start and then ended quite quickly. There was grumbling by Roberto and his contemporaries about how things had changed since they were young. “In those days,” went the stories, “they would march in line and sing the national anthem and other patriotic songs. No one is singing now,” they complained.
It was my first Independence Day, so for me it was nice to see all the families out and recognize the work put in the lanterns. There are a lot of beautiful people in Cahuita, I must say. We didn’t make it back the next day for the morning parade. It’s only about a 25 minute walk into town, but we don’t always want to leave here. The daytime is beautiful here, and without electricity, you need to do everything before dark.
When the lights go down (by 6 p.m. we are in the dark now), and the night sounds swell up, it is magical. But we don’t go wandering in the forest much at night, unless we are just returning from town. Right now the moon is up in the sky early in the evening and growing from a slice into half a pie, and so the forest is well-lit. The variety of shadows in the moonlight, with the cacophony of the night choir, makes it very beautiful.
We only have a battery-operated radio as our entertainment but the humidity of the place messes up the radios. Roberto has gone through a few radios. The new digital ones don’t like it hear at all. I have brought a solar-powered radio but that didn’t last long and we’ve gone through a couple of crank radios. As you can see by the photo, between turning the crank and holding the antenna wire up, it is a real participatory stereo system.
I crank out a few songs every night. But it is just as nice to talk and listen to the forest. That is where you hear the sounds of life and death.