I settled into it until I was certain, then upped the tempo and went on by her in a long sprint finish, was clinging to the ladder when she arrived, feeling less like a beached blowfish than on other days. “Well now!” she gasped, looking startled and owlish.”John D. MacDonald, “Bright Orange for the Shroud: A Travis McGee Novel” page 66 of 288 on Kindle, first paragraph of Chapter 5.
I don’t think the dictionary definition does this one justice. “Wise and solemn” is not the sense of it here nor in a way you may want to use it literarily. To me it’s the subtle widening of the whole circle of the eyes yet simultaneously keeping the rest of the face frozen. I feel like I’ve gotten and given spontaneously without thinking this subtle yet powerful expression a million times in my life without ever having been able to put it into words. I don’t think I would have gotten it here if John hadn’t added the world “startled.” When the expression of surprise comes only through the eyes, ironically, because the expression is trying to be hidden, it’s more powerfully and deeply felt. Normally when people are trying to woo or flatter you, they consciously add in the facial expressions. Ironically it loses effect. You know it’s not emergent from the heart in a spontaneous way. It’s when they really do feel surprise (I think mostly in the positive sense at something you’ve done or how you look) that you could describe their face as “looking owlish.” It’s a neat and fun word to use. And a very common experience. It’s power comes from its spontaneity, and “owlish” is a great way to describe it.