The following piece is from Charles's [as yet unpublished] book of his owl photos and essays. "Saw-whet Christmas" also appears in The Fish Jumps Out of the Moon. Enjoy!
Because it really was Christmas Eve of the first year I ever owned a camera, because I knew the Saw-whet was roosting in a small group of hemlocks on the south edge of the Shakespeare Garden, because it was a holiday eve and I was magically alone, because it was between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m. and the exquisite owl would not have flown out yet to go to its night’s labor and…
Because it was a soft December evening and I had the passionate feeling that there was nowhere I would rather be, I had no choice but to break a park rule—a small one. There was a three-and-a-half foot high rustic fence twixt the owl and me. So I looked over my shoulder several times while awkwardly climbing over the fence, hoping to locate the owl for its Christmas close-up.
Owls tend to reuse the same spots for daytime roosting and for the previous week this one had its residence in one of the two small conifers very close to where I was clambering over the fence. Owls are such cryptic masters that I didn’t know exactly where the bird was. So when I stood up straight I was a bit too on target and bumped a branch that brushed the owl and it flew. And this is how my life has been. It flew perhaps two feet and landed on another hemlock where the photographic light was even better.
There are many unique traits about the Saw-whet and just then the owl illustrated one. They sit tight. This owl, a very small raptor, proved that its defensive style is to stay put, even on Christian holidays.
The Freud of us birders, the man who invented birding, Roger Tory Peterson, actually gave instructions in a book that he wrote in the 1970’s on how to pick up a Saw-whet. This bird is so committed to its defensive posture, that according to Mr. Peterson, one can wiggle fingers in front of its face and with the other hand, from the rear, pick it up. For years I had dreamed of holding a Saw-whet, but now, with the perfect opportunity, I wanted the photograph more!
So I backed up a few feet, got my camera ready, stepped forward and bingo, a perfect Christmas Eve.
(From the photo essay collection Owls)