After being rejected on Friday from camping at Seacliff State Beach just south of Santa Cruz, we opted to go to our favorite default spot, Mercey Hot Springs. It’s a bit of a drive for one night but we were part way there already. Seacliff only allows fully self-contained RVs on the beach. Our gray water system – a big bucket with a lid – and our mini port-a-potty didn’t qualify according to state regulations. Mercey Hot Springs was a good Plan B; it offers the certainty of a good hot soak and the possibility of wildflowers, rabbits, owls and maybe even a tarantula.
Our favorite camping spot at Mercey was fortunately available. It sits across the small creek and is nestled among trees. Soon after arriving, I walked across the campus to the pine tree where the colony of long-eared owls often roost during the day. They weren’t there.
A few hours later at dusk as I was walking back to our campsite from the tubs, I saw an owl swoop out from the trees above our camper. Once in the site I was surprised by the sudden flight of an owl who had been perched, unseen in the darkness, on a branch near our picnic table.
This clump of tangled oasis trees is surrounded by arid desert land, chock full of rodents and rabbits. As I stood at the edge of the grove, owls began to glide silently from the trees making big loops back to sit in the upper branches or on the roof of the ruined old house nearby. It was as if after a day of sleep and meditation they were warming up their wings for a wild night of hunting. All around me owls circled, silhouetted against the fading light of the sky and the gentle glow of the rising full moon. Soon it became dark and their soundless nighttime antics were now invisible.
In the morning, I hoped to discover their roosting spots among the dense, chaotic branches. I was doubting I might find them when I saw movement not 15 feet away. Two owls, on a lower branch, were roughhousing together, playfully biting and clawing at each other. With camera in hand I caught them through the hazy needles. They became interested in me and the giant cyclops eye of my telephoto lens. With curiosity, they bent their heads side to side. Actually, it was less like bending and more like rotating the disc of their face to an impossible degree. Soon joined by two others they were hopping from branch to branch, frequently peering down at us with their intense yellow eyes and head rolling.
Our site was littered with the gruesome remains of their nighttime slaughter. We had to avoid stepping on small animal body parts, including the severed head of a desert rat. Later I would discover the lower half of the rat dangling from a branch. Left there for a daytime snack?
Eventually they all settled down, becoming still and sleepy, mostly hidden in the dense foliage from prying eyes.
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