Nature provided a special treat for walkers on Hay Street Christmas day in the somber presence of a barn owl.

Together with undoubtedly many others, I had never seen a barn owl on Newbury’s Hay Street, let alone a showoff that was perfectly content to just sit there on a bare limb, some 25 feet above the road bed, apparently enjoying the holiday by making note of passers-by.

“Merry Christmas,” I said.

He turned his head to look at me and blinked.

I had no idea then of what was on his mind, but I blinked back just as two young women came from the other direction and I pointed toward the owl.

One gasped with pleasure as they moved closer to him.

He blinked twice with what looked to me to be only one eye.

Show time, I thought.

If so, he was off to other venues on Wednesday, and only the two swans were on display at the far center reach of Quill’s Pond, the rest of it having been covered by an inch of snow on the thinnest of ice.

The Peking ducks are wintering in, and the swans will be shortly.

Surely, I thought as I made my way to the bridge, there will be a heavy snow cover this winter.

The thought was enriched a half mile on.

Upstream of Little River, there was no sign of ice. Downstream, it was covered with the thinnest of coats awaiting the turning of the tide.

It was eerily quiet. No road traffic — nothing but silence across the broad reach of the marsh to the upper pasture and the hills beyond where naked tree limbs reach skyward in an apparent plea for heavy winter coats.

The silence was broken by the steel-on-steel rumble of the midday commuter train to Boston. I turned to mark its passing as I have so many times, and was startled to note that I hadn’t seen a single bird in the entire sweep of the marshes.

They’ve taken to cover, too, I said.

I could smell winter’s coming. It always does in one way or another, of course, but we haven’t had the kind of winter that’s truly memorable for some time.

I don’t believe it will be as heavy as it was the year we had to call on the National Guard for help at Plum Island, and I find it difficult to believe that it will be as bad as the year I stood on top of a drift looking down on a state snow truck stuck just above Mel Pratt’s driveway on Hay Street.

But, let me put it this way. Barn owls are wise, and something’s up.


Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and staff columnist. His email address is

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