One evening in Shenandoah National Park, I saw something I've never seen before or since: A skunk running for its life!
It was rather late, well past sunset, on a warm summer night. I had to go "powder my nose," so I left my father and my brothers in the campsite and went for a walk. I found the paved walkway (national parks are not quite wilderness) and headed in the direction where I remembered seeing the lavatory earlier in the day.
Suddenly, I heard a strange sound. Something was scuffling along the path behind me. I could hear rhythmic clicking and scratching, as if a dog with very long claws was walking on the asphalt, but the rhythm was like that of an animal running. I peered into the darkness, and soon saw a skunk running along the path in my general direction.
Now, this was my first experience in the mountains, but at sixteen, I was already pretty well versed in the ways of the wild. And I had never seen a skunk running like that. I had never even imagined that a skunk could run.
As I puzzled over what the skunk was up to, it hurried along, running right past me within a foot or two, not taking the slightest notice of me.
My attention was torn. I tried to look simultaneously down the path to watch the skunk running away, and up the path to see what in the world it was running from.
I couldn't see or hear a thing in the direction the skunk had come from. In the other direction, his black-and-white tail and scuffling claws were disappearing into the darkness again as fast as his stumpy little legs could carry him.
Then it appeared!
A great horned owl was flying along the path, just under the overhanging branches. Its wings almost spanned the width of the path, barely clearing the trees as it flapped after the skunk.
And as it approached, I heard ... nothing!
It was flying slowly, as owls do, its great snowplow of a head seeming unable to part the air in front of it. It flapped vigorously, for such a large bird, reaching up to the overhanging trees and sweeping down almost to the ground.
And there was not a whisper of sound. It seemed to me that if the owl were not there, the empty air itself would make more noise than the owl was making.
More silent than a shadow, the owl passed less than three feet over my head. I could see each feather of the owl's breast and belly, I could see the dilated pupils of the bird's huge eyes. But I couldn't hear a breath of wind or a rustle of feathers from the flapping of those great wings.
The owl disappeared into the darkness that had swallowed the skunk. And that was the last I knew of that little drama. Did the owl catch the skunk? Did the skunk manage to elude the deadly predator? I really don't know.
I had read before that the great horned owl is the only thing that will kill and eat a skunk. Birds generally have poor senses of smell, so it's not too surprising that an owl will eat a skunk. (I believe a large snake will, too.) Now I know from first-hand experience that a great horned owl will certainly chase a skunk, and a skunk is certainly afraid of a great horned owl. Whether or not we believe that an owl will kill a skunk, the skunk believes it!
I had also read that most owls are exceptionally quiet when they fly, having tiny fringes on their flight feathers that dampen turbulence and muffle the sound of their wings. Now I know from first-hand experience that "exceptionally quiet" does not do justice to the utterly silent flight these huge birds are capable of.
Sometimes it's really not enough to read about nature. You have to see for yourself.
Epilogue: People who know me well can attest that I have exceptional night vision. Yes, believe it or not, I did indeed see every feather and I did indeed see the pupils of that owl's eyes. Even though my night vision may have faded a bit in the past 35 years, the memory of the noisy running skunk and of the owl flying silently right over my head has not faded in the least.