Hear this in a normal conversation and you would guess that it was…a package. A newly hung piece of art. Something molding in the fridge. But, no, in this case we were talking about a Barred Owl.
If a Barred Owl got into my pigeon coop and killed every bird it could find, I would’ve been furious. Steve, my friend and former teacher, was calm about the offense. I suppose that’s the value of long years working with animals. The lesson: shit happens. When we brought the culprit indoors for a brief viewing, recompense for the massacre, Steve merely mussed the bird’s head with unveiled appreciation.
“That interaction made losing a few pigeons completely worth it.”
Simone stepped into the coop, wearing clownish, yellow cowhide gloves, wielding a long-arm net. She was composed, from years of doing ridiculous things with birds with pointy ends. Hours before, her falconry Red-tailed Hawk accidentally grabbed her finger, excited over catching a Snowshoe Hare. I might have dribbled in my pants; she deftly snagged the bird. We were a bit let down by the lack of misadventure.
Barred Owls are newcomers to Washington State. Their first record is from 1965, in Northeast Washington. When Steve first started teaching here, they wouldn’t have been anywhere near Yelm. Now I’d hazard they are the most common owl in the state. In an attempt to alleviate pressure on their endangered congener, the gentle Northern Spotted Owl, a federal program exists to shoot Barred Owls where their ranges overlap. Barred Owls are intense birds, I’ve had more close, nearly painful encounters with them than any other bird. They are similarly hard on our native Spotteds, killing them as well as preying on other species like Western Screech Owls. What’s ironic is that their spread is completely due to human disturbance. They flourish in the open, mixed forests our logging practices create.
The receptacle for conveyance away from Steve’s coop was a burlap sack. This morphed into (thankfully!) a cardboard box. I’ve thrown probably a thousand, if not more, birds in bags. A burlap sack still seemed inappropriate. I had visions of it irrupting to scalp me before getting entangled in Simone’s hair. She’d run around screaming while I bled out, the first person to die by owl talon. If I’m going to die from a wildlife encounter, I’d at least like to be gutted by a Cassowary, or maybe trampled by stampeding Wildebeest. “Owl death” doesn’t sound becoming from where I’m sitting, but maybe I’m not into death metal enough.
The did owl bite Simone on her shoulder in the process of getting it into the box. Before that, it had been remarkably placid, likely because its “condition” was “blubbery,” a sure 5 for banding data. Though real damage is dealt with talons, blood welled from the wound inflicted through shirt and sweatshirt. This nibble was fair reason for circumspection around a bird that only weighed a few pounds at most.
Good lord was this bird pretty. Admittedly, I’ve never seen a Barred Owl and thought “you are the source of all our ecological ills.” Instead it’s something along the lines of “Be still my love, so I can count the cryptic chocolate patterning of your plumage and stare into the soulful depths of those black eyes.” We were respectful, but it took its fair share of poking, prodding, mussing of feathers, and flash photography in the process of “rescuing.” I did stay well away from those rapier talons though, I’m not into S&M.
There’s some legal ramifications to transporting and releasing a protected bird (that the government pays people to shoot). So we didn’t take it very far away. I know that’s not how laws work, but I don’t really care. There are greater ills in the world. Somewhere in the forest nearby, this character disappeared into the murky second-growth forest that welcomed his kind in the first place.
He was probably surprised, in a Barred Owl way, that we didn’t eat him. Had our relative sizes been reversed, I have no doubt we would have been dinner. We watched him disappear into the damp afternoon, happy to have experienced this creature for a few hours. Maybe this was rude treatment for a respectable species, maybe a bird on territory; but killing 12 pigeons is similarly impolite.
They say what goes up, must come down. I pondered that notion both in terms of physics (which I have no business in pondering) and philosophically, as the wind tickled the surface of hidden lake and I eyed the frozen peaks. We all were quietly steeling ourselves for the scramble up, inwardly wishing we could ever imbibe in the solitude of the North Cascades. What goes down, must come up?
The downside of hiking into a basin 1000 feet below your shelter, is that you have to go back up at some point. In numbers it sounds less impressive but we had to travel up 0.18 feet vertically for every foot horizontally, but this was no feeble climb. The elevation gain itself wasn’t the issue really, it was that we were doing it with no trail, over boulders and up cliffs. Strapping on packs, taking final longing gazes at this clear blue lake, we turned to face the slippery wall of granite.
I wasn’t morosely facing the exertion, I just felt this was far too quick of a departure. There were plants to identify, ones that I discovered when I was home, were endemic to the North Cascades. (The problem with last minute trips is that I never prepare enough to know everything, y’know, because when I have time, I do know everything). Maybe there were ptarmigan somewhere in this basin. With so many places for natural history to secret away within an endless jumble of boulders, I was anxious that I was missing too much. My 28 years of loving nature hasn’t taught me zen in the face of exploratory learning opportunities. I resisted the urge to frantically peer beneath every rock, to photograph ever inch of the way.
Despite respecting the risks one takes in backcountry travel, like inelegant clambering over loose rocks that weigh as much as your car, I generally never find myself overwhelmed or out of my element in wild places. The whole process seems pretty simple if informed choices are made and nothing bad happens (never impossible). That said, I am mindful at all times. We picked our way up, didn’t aim to tilt the loose rocks, didn’t jump too often, stopped to survey our progress. That’s the beauty of moving on foot, the control is in you alone. I find the simplicity elevates my confidence; one foot in front of the other.
Three people use a lot of water and we refilled on a particularly beautiful bench halfway up. The route finding had been pretty fun, heading a totally different way up, with no white-knuckle slithers down algae-slicked cliffs. I got distracted from water purification by the miniature landscape of a pika’s little world where we sat.
Here an animal lived it’s whole life, bouncing into view, calling, watching us, and then disappearing behind rocks to repeat the process over. It was strange, almost muppet-like. This was its element, its evolutionary inheritance, but as temperatures warm, the alpine will be invaded by hoards of trees and winters won’t be the same the pika. The small stream might divert elsewhere or not flow enough, losing the oxygen to support the miniscule ecosystem of this flat, and maybe not grow the right plants to harvest and last the winter. For the pika lasts the winter by secreting away the hay of alpine perennials. I had no specific vision of what might change, but I knew that if a pika knew the wealth of place as people did, it would cherish it’s mini valley. There is no doubt in my mind that they do in their own inherent way; old middens were everywhere beneath the giant granite. We would share this spot for a moment, but soon forget and re-commence our plaguing consumption that spreads well beyond our immediate world.
Most of the snow left was pink with algae cast gray by melted grime. While interesting looking, one doesn’t immediately recognize that the organism growing on spent snow is persisting on ice cold water, the alluvial collection of nutrients, and a ephemeral sun. It was a marvel enough that between the ominous storm clouds and quick seasons that anything could live there. Does it make sense that we find the small scale life more difficult to appreciate and comprehend, when the existence of multicellular organisms is in some ways much more complex? Were we ruining colonies of photosynthetic organisms, ending inheritance lines with our feet as we skidded across a snow field to a cairn marking the end of our sojourn away from humanity?
Tired but satisfied, we trundled back up and found new companions at the lookout. You never know who these people might be, so it was a relief to find three bright-eyed siblings enthusiastically surveying the roof of the world. Their solidarity was immediately apparent when the elder sister told me my feet stank half jokingly. She was well aware that our perch had little to do with hygienics. Besides, small spaces are not for fragrant peakbaggers paired to sensitive noses.
Our new companions were of a different breed, but were easy to enjoy the mountains with. Noel and I couldn’t contain our urge to again snare the churning light in the passing depths of clouds. Watching the siblings take a picture on the penultimate slab on the peak, Sam and Noel were finally lured there for a group photo we’ll never forget. I escaped momentarily to attempt to photograph pika in the evening light, but instead merely watched the wind and listened to their constant squeaking as they ghosted about. Giving up, I returned to bounce around the peak for the rest of the night, laughing and free from worry.
A sunset and a brief moment of clear starry skies was a final treat on our trip. The next morning we woke again to torrential rain and our companions saddled up immediately to leave. We ate breakfast, trying to wait out a storm that wouldn’t stop. We packed our considerably lighter bags and began our slosh down the mountain. We didn’t talk too much, the creeks were noisy and swollen and we were lost in contemplation, swimming in our own moisture mingling with rain. The drenching didn’t matter, and somehow, I got away with dry feet.
Ultimately, as a species, we don’t belong in the high alpine. We visit them and occasional cultures embrace the peaks or wend above the treeline, but all our bones are easily dashed against the callous steeples. You climb for spiritual experiences and most descend unharmed.
Sam is a good sport when it comes to two good friends who are fiendish photographers. He lounged about wisely overseeing while Noel and I squawked over the orgasmical light vibrating across glaciers and rock. While it was truly spectacular, I had to remind myself to simply sit and observe as Sam did. The fear of missing out is strong beneath ephemeral storms clouds. Clear sky was enveloped by a wall of steel gray, at first spiting, then pummeling with heavy drops. We called it quits and retreated to shelter.
I believe I heard the shout first, because I stood up from our card game and looked out the window. There was Nicole, the girl who left the lookout hours ago. She was strangely far out on the edge of the peak, as if she’d climbed up the shear cliff. We went outside to meet her and stood in the wind while she told her story.
We were all just as confused as Nicole, who was soaked to the bone and vaguely incoherent, as she told us what happened. From what we could tell, she’d descended far from any trail, heading the complete opposite direction of the trailhead. It sound as if she had started to climb down a cliff. Her car keys were gone, she fell and lost them, and her cell phone was dead because she’d been taking pictures. Soaked, with no rain gear and no food, we insisted she come inside.
Her parents expected her at eight o’clock, which was fast approaching. It seemed obvious that she wouldn’t be heading down in the dark, but we didn’t have cell phones or any other way to communicate that she was alright. We shared our meal with her, lent her dry clothes, and made her use the extra blankets in the lookout to warm up. Sure, we felt bad for her, but this was a significant damper on the evening and we decided to turn in rather soon after her arrival.
The next morning I’d planned on waking for sunrise but when the alarm hit we appeared to be adrift in a cloud. Nothing was visible, not even the peak we were perched on, and rain smacked the hollow shelter. Sam and I got our obligate coffee and soon breakfast was cooked on the leeward side of the lookout. Nicole stayed in bed the entire time, lounging around post breakfast as if she wasn’t a missing person. Magically her cell phone worked again and she texted her Dad before it died. As the day cleared and I expected her to get on her way or ask us to lead her back, but she simply sat around, even after I explained that there was certainly a search party out for her. Having waited out the storm, it was approaching 11 A.M before Sam, Noel, and I were ready to leave for the lake below and guide Nicole to the main trail.
With mountains always in the distance, I think many people in the Northwest become familiar with their beauty but forget they aren’t a benign playground. I’m a firm believer that we should take the wilderness seriously. We did all that we could to help Nicole, but when the situation turned from dangerous to a babysitting annoyance, I started to get irritated.
Yes, Nicole was near hypothermic by the time she found us, evidenced by her shivering and lack of decision making. She was probably scared that her parents would be mad and unsure about spending the night with a bunch of men. That doesn’t get her off the hook. Quite possibly that sounds cruel, but she could have died out there and didn’t seem to appreciate that fact. This was all going through my head as we started down and I was not looking forward to shepherding her. Thankfully a ranger was on his way up to find Nicole, lifting us of responsibility. We could return to mountain solitude, the point of the trip.
Letting go of my gripes, we picked our way down from the saddle below the peak and descended to the lake itself. Little did I know this wasn’t the end of my annoyances. We’d have our trip soured by a imposing ranger at the Marblemount station, bent on sussing out our malfeasance.
“Sounded like it was quite the party up there.”
Questions need to be asked when a young girl spends the night with three men, but the series of insinuations we endured made me furious. We’d been nothing but gentlemen, even stepping out into the rain while she changed clothes. We enjoyed our beer, but that shit’s heavy and we’d brought just enough for ourselves, not an underage girl. There was no “thank you for helping her.” I felt like I was accused of being a predatory frat boy. This was poor payment for benevolent actions (despite my callous grumblings above). However, I suppose you don’t do good things for rewards, but because they are the right thing to do. The only grudge I’ll hold is against the head ranger at the Marblemount station. You suck dude.
Back to the mountains.
Pika, the alpine cousin of rabbits, held my attention the entire trip. They were one of the few vertebrates and seemed to be everywhere in the granite fields. Their cartoonish “eeee” was a constant companion in the lonely soundscape down the valley. No birds called. Stopping to breath, the only other noises were the trickle of water, the wind gently past our ears, and our heaving.
Soon there was no obvious trail, nor cairns marking the simplest route. We were left to our own devices and there was sparse evidence of people. Despite having traveled a distance from the city, I was struck by how close it really was. This bowl in one way had little to do with us and existed, largely in-situ; people couldn’t get there to actively deface it. Yet, as steeled to life as the alpine is, it’s fragile, and I knew the landscape of ice and rock was not immune. We’d driven to the trail-head after all.
A series of benches gave us the continued false sense of being just on the verge of the lake-shore. At one point I led us down a sliver of unprotected rock, thinking it the easiest route. Turning to look back up, we realized we’d just shimmied down a cliff. Even a short fall here would have been disastrous.
200 feet below us sat the water. Beautiful, blue, and teeming with trout but still 200 feet down. Calf-deep in heather, grasping thin trunks of mountain hemlocks, we peered down, trying to see a way. I was almost ready to give up before we found a slippery route to the shore.
Restricted by our desire to stay dry, we spread out on a small group of boulders lining the bowl. To one side, a cliff teeming with holdout wildflowers growing in the midst of a waterfall. To the other rock struck vertically into the lake. No matter, we would have found different views elsewhere, but the essential experience would have been this same. For those precious hours, we shared this lake with no other people.
Perched on rocks, a waterfall to our backs, we felt accomplished and ready to fish. Of course there was the issue that we are all abominable fishermen. There were dozens of trout in the lake, but by the time our flailing casts had sliced the water a handful of times, I’m fairly certain they’d all vacated our cove.
We kept casting, aimless and happy despite failures. Giving into our deficiencies, we stopped and quietly enjoyed the sublimity of the floating lake, which seemed to waft out into the Sahale glacier miles away.
(A note from Brendan: The main purpose of wingtrip (which is now essentially only written on by me, unless there are tempted contributors out there) is to fuse words, images, and in the near future, video, in discussion of exploring the natural world (hopefully with a new design soon). This is sometimes a lofty goal and the lack of content only means that I am hard at work. I’ve recently gotten a role as a regular contributor to a small local newspaper in Seattle writing about urban natural history. It’s taken a good portion of energy to lately to keep up with it, work, and wingtrip (and my health!). But I’m back on the horse and I have a bank of stories that will be up in the coming weeks. I hope you all will enjoy and continue to come back. This is a big adventure and as any creative knows, it’s a road fraught with self doubt and a lot of rejection letters. Thanks for reading and your support, even though simple clicks!)
The book Sagebrush Country by Ronald J. Taylor had been sitting on my kitchen table (ie writing desk) for several weeks. That’s not to say I’d had time to study, but that at least I’d considered it. Re-reading the introduction, I remind myself that this mosaic is not singularly approachable and that I should just enjoy the time there: “Over this broad steppeland region of western North America – variable climate, topography, and species – the single most important unifying characteristic is the presence of sagebrush, usually conspicuous and often dominant.” As usual I can’t expect to know it all, even after years of practice.
I’ve visited Malheur Bird Observatory, or MABO as we call it, for half a dozen years. This isn’t the bird observatory you might envision, a place with an office, a lab, some interns, a lead scientist. In a ethereal way these things are all true. More substantially, there’s a shitter named Ziggy, a defunct shower, a fire pit, some platforms for wall tents, a well, and the most prominent of structures, the loggerhead shrike emblazoned water tower. I like to think of water tower as the center of the observatory, its height makes it the most prominent promontory.
MABO means many different things to many different people. Generations of naturalists have strung together days and months of their lives on this square of property butted against Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I say naturalists because there’s a myriad of professional roles the visitors take up. We are all united by love of the natural world and a link in our influential professor Dr. Herman.
When I stand on the platform of the water tower and look out across the landscape, I get caught up in imagining this place before Europeans. I try not to get upset and point fingers, that’s not the reason for visiting MABO, but I find it difficult to watch the orgiastic jets of water from the irrigation on the neighbor’s plot. I prefer to pretend there’s nothing but our fire ring and miles of sagebrush and wetlands covering volcanic scablands between here and the slash of the Steens. Possibly it’s an immature approach to take. I enjoy the impassioned discussions by the fire and find the fervor of my contemporaries and elders inspiring. But I’m here to stare at the horizon and listen to Franklin’s gulls.
Many evenings we are treated to the sagebrush sunset. The mingled colors born of dust and steel laced clouds, desiccation and moisture at odds in the distance. We pray for rain, as we are layered with a temporary but palpable alluvial patina, like the seasoning on our cast irons but not quite as beneficial. You eventually forget about the dust, become one with it, and then it rains. Sometimes insufferable dust turns muck, sometimes it merely congeals to a comfortable walking surface. Every year it seems to be dustier, but that’s not an empirical statement (you have to be careful what you state around here, this is a scientists’ camp after all). Then again, who likes camping in the rain?
Migrant traps, that is verdant habitat and water in literal or proverbial deserts, are something that birders dream about. I’ve been to plenty and I still can’t quite decide how I feel about them. Certainly the birds are copious in the right circumstances, but the right circumstances aren’t always ideal for the birds themselves. On the other hand, birds will struggle in migration with or without human consciousness. Best to toss that twinge of guilt in with the twelve hour drive to get here.
Western Tanagers zip about, marmalade sundrops in the overcast sky. Yellow warblers sing their sweet songs and build their rotund nests of cotton fluff and spider silk. American White Pelicans soar overhead or flotilla on the waterways of the refuge. But don’t ask Dr. Herman why they fly in groups overhead, he hates that question. Sometimes the parsimonious answer is admitting that animals also do things for simple enjoyment.
Away in the desiccated shrubsteppe, you could convince yourself that you are miles from water. Botanize a bit, learn or re-learn species, enjoy the botanical biodiversity that persists where untrampled by bovine blundering. Hear the buzz of Brewer’s sparrows and notice the foolish swaying of a sage thrasher in the throes of territorial posturing. Maybe devote some patience to finding the loggerhead shrike nest that surely exists in a thorny greasewood of the alkaline playa. Several of us did, in succession and unaware of each other, witnessing the successive hatching of their young.
Yet, stooping to enjoy a dwarf monkey flower, just now poking through the soil, you hear the intensity of a willet overhead. You think to yourself, this is a desert (and you would be right). But just over the hill there’s water. Just as the storms mingle with the dust, the curlews, gulls, terns, pelicans, and blackbirds contrast with the sagebrush obligates. And the mosquitoes.
I always want to ramble off and drive somewhere, but it’s difficult to want to sit in a car when you’ve traveled so far already. Still, Page Springs at the base of the Steens, with yellow-breasted chats and ash-throated flycatchers usually lures a group. We’ll drive a portion of the central patrol road (once used solely to stamp out poachers) and enjoy the waterways of cinnamon teal and black terns. Diminutive and gaudy icterids, male bobolink swing around in circles over their wet meadows before evaporating into impossibly short grass. A few cranes and a few surprises every year. This is casual birding at its best, possibly with a beverage in hand.
I’d never seen the road up the Steens open this early and apparently no one else had either. The road’s probably always clear most of the way up, but who would want to deal with a track destroyed during the muddy melt? Our travel up seemed like an adventure, ending at a second gate just short of the Kiger Gorge vista we’d all desired seeing still laden with snow. Mountain bluebirds and wildflowers we’d never enjoyed brightened our day regardless. We were charmed by newly hatched killdeer, unsteadily precocial fluff balls. One joy of knowing a place is seeing it throughout the season and with a locked gate, this joy is denied most on this epic fault block. This was a special experience certainly.
Many complain about the drive, but only because most of us don’t feel much like packing up and leaving when the time comes. In truth, the roadtrip is part of the fun, there’s multiple ways to get there and always new things to see. I stare out the window and pick out plants and birds. A Ferruginous hawk nest and its occupants. Mustard, buckweat, lupine, locoweed, phlox, balsam root. It’s high speed identification paired with a hasty, harrowing breaking to the shoulder to jump out and poke around. If you aren’t in a hurry, you can take nine hours to drive what should take six.
I’m always aware there’s tragedy on the road. We watched six Vaux’s swifts plastered by a truck ahead of us. Two were too smashed to be made into study specimens, but four will grace the education vaults of a non-profit’s museum. I hate seeing birds die but I won’t lie, I also appreciate the opportunity for close scrutiny they present.
Busy with my (foolish) enduring goal of being a professional writer and photographer, it was easy to rush down to MABO and try to document. I always take pictures, I always write, but I had to force myself to ease back. This is the difficulty of my path, missing the divisions between life and work. My scientist friends, currently in the field or otherwise can make this distinction and are happy to relax. These are friends reuniting once a year, people who work as far away as Alaska and those who spend months apart from their loved ones to collect data and help inform the continued existence of the places we love. While I rush around, attempting to fuss with this camera or that, they are back enjoying stories from the North Slope or Mexican islands. After devoting too much time to learning a new wildlife camera and getting nothing from it, I swear I’ll bring no cameras next year. I’ll likely forget or change my mind by then.
This parcel of land evokes strong emotions and is equal parts inspiring while shaking up my resolve. When people talk about god or religion I try to assume they just talking about an abstraction of spirituality for the land. After all, the dust, the mosquitoes, and the frenetic swings of temperature remind all of us that the landscape doesn’t care about our comfort and all we can do is adjust. The shrub steppe, is a blindingly beautiful community and a harsh environment all in one moment in time. I desperately hope it’s around for my children and that when they crest the cascades and descend into the great basin, they’ll see a vibrant biological community, not a desiccated wasteland.
Bonus: I’ve been working on time lapse photography and incorporated off the cuff audio recordings I’ve made into a video.
Sometimes the birds just don’t want to cooperate. Sure, I could hear many but I couldn’t see a damn thing. Down the slope of Hurricane Ridge I was squinting across, only six trees were likely candidates for a Olive-sided Flycatcher I could hear pipping away, but no tapered silhouette materialized. American Pipits spirited about overhead and in open alpine meadows directly in front of us, apparently invisible. Don’t get me wrong here, I love wildflowers, but I was begging to lose steam talking about them. Something alive and lacking roots was in order for variety’s sake.
Those snow patches were in an oddly exposed southern face….No, not snow, Mountain Goats!
There’s a million and one stories about introduced species, intentional or otherwise, the vast majority are not positive. How Mountain Goats got to the Olympic Peninsula isn’t a mystery, a few sportsmen got it in their heads in 1920s that they could do with some more things to hunt in the Olympics. Apparently Black-tailed Deer and the largest subspecies of Elk in North America, the Roosevelt Elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti), weren’t enough.
In a place that designated a National Park, a Biosphere Reserve, and a World Heritage Site partially because of marked floral endemism, (and notable endemic fauna) you might guess why a significant introduced goat population is be a problem. (Ok, ok, they are actually goat-antelopes but who’s counting?) The point is they trample, munch, and wallow in all those gaudy, endemic, fragile plants I was half complaining about earlier, (I also incessantly have to remind my fellow mammals to not trample them so I can’t really blame the goats too much).
The goats have been a point of contention for a long time. The park service initially tried to remove the over 1000 strong population by live capture during the 1980s. This was dangerous, eventually deemed impractical at best, taking care of 521 animals. Between some hunting outside the park and the removals, the population dropped back to a somewhat reasonable number. In 1997 there was a push to shoot the remainder but public opinion apparently shut that idea down.
So then this guy hiking in the Olympics in 2010 got gored by a male Mountain Goat in rut. He died. People got upset (understandably) and there’s a lawsuit pending. Knowing full well that mountain goats are aggressive and potentially dangerous, it’s still easy to want to get closer and we hiked on intent on better views.
We’d been watched the group of seven goats, three of them adorable yearlings, when the largest and closest animal, dashed inexplicably closer to where we stood on the trail. While rushing away in terror I also noticed he was shedding his winter wool coat quite rapidly, tufts wafting off as he sprinted. I thought of the warm blankets the people of the Olympic Peninsula would have traded for with tribes from near the goats’ native range in the Cascades. Then I noticed the man running in our direction and realized why the goats were running.
I’ve never had a ranger at park tell me to throw rocks at a wild animal until this year. Much less have I ever seen a ranger running full-tilt down a trail shooting a paintball gun at Mountain Goats. They’d gotten much too close to the trail, following about all the wonderful annual foliage in the subalpine swale just below us. Deterring animals from living in areas where high numbers of people visit is the temporary solution.
I don’t envy the National Park service, trying to appease animals rights interests by not killing the goats but being asked to do so by concerned hikers (and likely a few botanists). Sure these animals shouldn’t be there, but they are always enjoyable to see. And quite honestly I didn’t mind seeing rangers shoot hot pink paintballs at seven caterwauling goats. It was possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen all summer (however let’s pray next summer consists of something better).
Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) are ubiquitous and easily observed. So common, widespread, and obvious that they are easily written off. You’ve seen a lot of them and will see many more, as they are one of the most adaptable waterbirds in North America.
These are gems we should really cherish. Species we can become truly familiar with, because in the case of birds, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. We should not just note their presence, but really make an effort to know them. In Seattle, we share our city with herons anywhere there’s shoreline and we’ve even made them our city bird. Some people become heavily involved in their natural history, anointing themselves caretakers of heronry sites, keeping watch. Others merely notice them standing at the Ballard Locks or flying over their house in the middle of the city. Most people in Seattle know them because of their size alone, which makes them easy to observe. I’d hazard they are as iconic of birdlife to the general public as Bald Eagles.
Yet, while I always note a GBH, as many birders call them, I wouldn’t suggest I spend tons of time thinking about their habits or that I have an intimate understanding of them as a species. I generally know what most birders know: that they nest in colonies, they eat fish but have quite varied diets, that they are the largest herons in North America, and are very common.
I always try to push myself to learn more, not by reading or studying photographs, but by observation. When the opportunity presents itself, I try to not keep walking and do what is all too easy to say.
“It’s just a heron.”
I resisted the urge recently and was graced with some decent photos and some enjoyable behavior.
This particular bird was obviously hunting – standing intensely still over a clear patch of water on the edge of Union Bay on Lake Washington. I decided to settle down, take a few shots, wait, and observe. Of course as I decided this, the bird made its move, diving almost completely into the water.
Wet and gangly, the bird flopped back out of the water with a small catfish adorning the end of its spear-like bill. Blood began to trail down the protruding bill tip and it began a series of head waggles to loosen the quarry. Eventually the fish slid off and at the same time the bird deftly tossed it up and caught it head first. Swallowing the catfish in this orientation, a creeping lump that slowly slid down the heron’s gracile neck, reminiscent of a snake’s dinnertime.
As I watched this mealtime, one of thousands this bird would have all summer, I realized I’d never seen a heron swallow something so large. I’ve been watching birds for 18 years, much more of my life then I haven’t, and I’ve never seen this simple act in person. There’s always something new to see, even when you think you’ve fully explore your backyard, you’ll discover some nook, casting everything in a new light. With Summer flying by, I always need to find small pleasures.
Mulling this over, I watched the bird go through the post meal motions. Bill rubbing, splashing the blood off in the water, and a series of yawns that left its tongue dangling at odd angles. All of a sudden, it turned to look at me, as if suddenly realizing what I was, and took off with a raucous squawk.
Happy World Oceans Day! Hope everyone takes a second to think about the beautiful oceans on this planet we live on. I’ve never been a big swimmer, but I sure as hell cherish the ocean. Here are a few photos that came to mind when I thought about today.
We all know things aren’t what they used to be out on the open oceans. The world is mostly water. It takes care of us. Let’s take care of it.
Feathers were strewn everywhere. Body and head asunder. Something had been eating the skull custard. A murder in my backyard.
I’d been walking my bike to the back patio of my urban home in Seattle when I’d been stopped in my tracks. A bird lay there, dead, left in the middle of the cement. Immediately my mind tore into superstitious, paranoid thoughts. Was this an ill omen? Who was the culprit? The neighbor’s cat, who roams freely, accompanying me while I tend my vegetable garden? Was I responsible because I’d not chased him away? Or was this something entirely more natural, a Cooper’s, a Sharp-shinned Hawk?
This mess was a female American Robin (Turdus migratorius). Most likely the one I’d been watching collect heaping billfulls of earthworms for nestlings nearby. I had a selfish moment of annoyance. I’d just swept the patio, now it was littered with feathers and a half eaten corpse. What a strange reaction to a gruesome death. Annoyance at the inconvenience?
Walking inside, I pondered how I should be reacting. A couple attitudes, moral directions presented themselves.
On one hand, this is just a part of life. Mortality, particularly in short-lived species like American Robins, is commonplace. Death is often apparent during the breeding season. Failed nests, naïve fledglings, there’s a reason many species have large clutches. The American Robin population is generally increasing, so certainly there was nothing to worry about. While I know these things are true, I’ve never been able to fully submit to this scientifically objective tone. I’d argue that most good biologists have emotional attachment to whatever they study and generally care more than their publications admit.
(And, I do enjoy seeing a natural predator catch prey, but that doesn’t mean I relish death.)
On the flip side is my desire to honor or rather cherish all life. Assigning values to different species seems absurd, horrible in fact. Yet we do it all the time, from valuing vegetables over weeds or killing mosquitoes while encouraging lady beetles. Life isn’t so simplistic to totally adhere to one train of thought. I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t be more upset if I’d found say a Cooper’s Hawk or even an American Crow dead in my yard.
However, what if I was indirectly responsible for the death of this bird? I connected the dots: petting the neighbor’s cat, encouraging it to come back, giving it an opportunity to catch this mother robin. There’s an entirely different issue here: this cat was outdoors in the first place. Outdoor pet cats probably kill hundreds of millions of songbirds every year. This is an inflammatory issue, but you can’t ignore that fact that house cats are not natural and can have a serious impact. With an estimated 60 million pet cats in the United States alone (many of course are kept indoors), if even half are outside and kill a bird every year, that’s around 30 million birds dead of just one of many human causes*. I myself have had pet cats that went outside too.
So basically, should I be moved to tears or stoically look on as a trained scientist? As usual, I landed somewhere in the middle. There’s a good chance that if this female had a nest, it would now fail and that was a sad image; baby birds wasting away in the nest. Males do help with rearing young but it’s not typically a one bird job. Yet, as I said, American Robins are extremely common and that this was not a disaster for the species. However, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, humans have impacts on other species, even the common ones.
Mulling it all over I’d concluded that another bird had likely killed the robin based on the state of the corpse. The scientist in me decided that I might as well use this as learning experience, I started to do a little research on American Robins. Maybe I could also figure out the age of the bird or something else. Time for some forensics.
Just as I had that thought, I heard the ominous rush of scavenger wings outside. Crow wings. It doesn’t take long for a mess to be cleaned up. More wingbeats and knocking on the gutters. I crept outside to watch the crow and its prize. I wasn’t quiet enough. Flushing, it left a robin corpse in the gutter. Maybe that full crop was going to some babies. From death comes life? I continued thinking about how to approach life and death in my backyard and I heard the crow return two more times.
Inspecting my patio a half an hour later, I found no head and no body. Somehow this resolved the issue for me.
As I stood there with feathers strewn about my feet, Bewick’s Wrens were noisily herding their shakily flighted fledglings about the yard. Death and life were spinning about, even in my urban yard.
The unflagging exuberance of young birders (or simply those enamored with nature) is draining on those even just slightly older. Certainly it’s uplifting and I felt energized as we left the Sage Grouse Lek on Foster Flats. Energy was entirely welcome after all, we still had a full day ahead of us.
Vesper Sparrows (Pooecetesgramineus) and Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) serenaded us down from the lek “parking lot.” In a couple slimy sections of the road, I inwardly thanked our lucky stars for making it up. After the other visitors had squirmed upslope, the track was a sloppy mess of mud ruts. The refreshing air wafted through aromatic shrubs had a calming effect though. The were windows rolled down and ears pricked at notes from the steppe.
Just as I expressed doubts about the promise we’d see a certain sage obligate, we heard cheery, ebullient notes tossed across the shrubs. The Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli) is a delicately colored bird, enjoyable and beautiful in subdued shades of gray and brown in the way we find subtle geology dazzling. I’d also reckon it has one of the prettier sparrow songs. The first individual sat dutifully staking claim, broadcasting for mates long enough for Eric and I to creep near clutching cameras.
Before we made it back to the highway we couldn’t resist a few more stops to enjoy the sunny morning. A Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) sailed far above and more sparrows sang around us. We all developed platforms of mud, inches thick, caked to our soles that had to be scraped off each time before returning to the van.
Already pleased with the sights, we curved down the highway to the The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. The mention of the BLM never gets me excited except knowing that the land has few rules to fetter the adventurous. When entering their properties (or as many say, “our property, our land”), I vacillate between imagining open pit mines and overgrazed riparian areas festering with watery cow pies. “The Bureau of Land Mismanagement.” Let it be said that the road we traveled in to see the lek was a derelict BLM road, so I can’t entirely grouse. Diamond Crater’s must be the crown gem of all the BLM land.
What pleased me the most about visiting this area was the fluency of the Birdwatch kids in all things natural. Sure, they wanted to go far and see much birdwise, but they could enjoy roaming geology and settling down for a good old fashioned lizard catching romp too. Before we’d even made it past the first designated stop on the auto tour of the “Outstading Natural Area,” we were crawling over the thin crust of a basaltic flow in search of reptiles.
Midday birding what it is, we had the geology and herps to keep us busy. This first stop saw us clambering on a vertically tilted slab of basalt attempting to outwit several behemoth Western Fence Lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis). A cooperative Sagebrush Lizard (Sceloporus graciosus) proved much more easily caught and photographed. At the same time, someone noticed that many of the cracks in the rock were filled with Pacific Chorus Frogs (Pseudacris regilla)! Between trying to capture images of frog faces wedged in fissures and snagging lizards, we laughed and scrambled away an hour. This was good, respectable fun that had nothing to do with age or ability or knowledge.
The Diamond Craters are true geological wonders, much deserving of their cornball designation. I’d visited previously but hadn’t been compelled to contemplate the spread. Much of the rock we’d seen before this point was from a comparatively ancient 9.2 million year old vent located near where Burns, Oregon is today. The Diamond Craters are a geologically young formation, around 25,000 years old, and display a huge array of basaltic volcanic features localized and easy to see. Massive craters admired are in various states of erosion, collapsing in on themselves. The evidence of explosive events, fueled by the interaction of water and magma, were strewn about. I couldn’t help but wish to have viewed this from afar over the thousands of years of activity. The tumult, the explosions, the flows of viscous lava bubbling from vents to cover lakes and millions of years of older formations. I reckon I could probably give up television for that opportunity.
Possibly the gravity of the geology was lost on some of the students but they couldn’t ignore the unique features. Nor could they deny the desire to roam the slopes or climb into the craters. (Parents, don’t worry, this is no longer volcanically active). At the particularly stunning Lava Pit Crater, a collapsed shield volcano that repeatedly flooded lava over the surrounding slopes until it subsided and began to crumble, we had another good scramble. Here we found some delicate Side-blotched Lizards (genus Uta) near the crater rim and the more intrepid accidentally sussed out both a Great-horned (Bubo virginianus) and Barn Owl (Tyto alba) while exploring a particularly large vent.
The day went on like that. Driving, stopping at a gaudy volcanic feature, spreading out over it till we looked like ants, and circling back up to pile into the car. I don’t think any of us could have asked for a more enjoyable afternoon to cap the day and the trip. As the weather began to foul again, we turned back to the field station, satisfied and tired.
Back at the field station we discovered a Bushy-tailed Woodrat (Neotoma cinerea) that had been captured in the director’s residence and left for us to release. Only in this bizarre world I’m a part of does releasing giant rats count as fun. The giddy troops were dispatched and those of us who drove at 3 AM took a rest. Somehow, when they returned, I got convinced to hunt Kangaroo rats one last time.
So, excuse my lack of eloquence here: this shit is important. These kids are going to grow up and change the world. They are going to be stewards of the environment, no matter what choices they make in their career paths (doctors, business people, politicians need to have a connection with the natural world too). The volunteers of the program said this about my cohort when I was in Birdwatch and they were right; we’re working on it. I can think of little that is more important than helping this generation along, particularly considering this is a dying pursuit amongst the youngsters of America. Nature Deficit disorder may not be diagnosable but it is real. There is a widening disconnect between young people and nature, in my generation, and those after. I’ll never stop asking this of you, of myself, of anyone: how we can expect to save things we don’t understand, let alone care about? Simply knowing an animal or a landscape is endangered doesn’t inherently fuel action.
I’ll calm down and stop jumping on my soap box in just a second. My point is, if you have kids, get them outside and let them get dirty. If you are a kid (read: if you are young of heart), get out yourself. You don’t need to know what everything is or fret over dangers. For shit’s sake, live a little!
There are plenty more details, stories, and exciting things to share about our travels in Oregon but I choose to leave it here. We had an immeasurably good time and were all sad to leave and head back to the city. All ten hours back there were constant pleas from students (and whispered from the volunteers) to stop and explore. To get sidetracked.
Flattening animals is never a good way to start the day. The jackrabbit was in the opposite lane when the brights caught it. Why it made the decision to hop daintily beneath my tires is beyond comprehension. As Tristan put it later, slowing would have made the difference between creaming it at 40mph rather than 60. I’d rather a clean job of it. I was still unerved.
Foster Flats Road slid about under the tires like the thin layer of wet snow most Seattlites find an insurmountable obstacle. When rain falls heavily on ground only half prepared for absorption, a sickly alluvium forms. We’d been warned such mud could make for disaster. However, there’d been no rain overnight and at 3:50AM a collective decision made. Yes, we were still in pajamas and the twin beds were, at that moment, the most luxurious in the world, but there was a greater pull. Time to get up the kids.
A vague hint of a slaty first light began to push over the horizon. The windows rolled down, Horned Larks were audible in dawn chorus. They were also apparently sleeping the middle of the road, groggily or stubbornly flushing seconds before our tread.
After eight squelching, sliding, jostling miles we slowed to a crawl. It was about five AM and we should have been able to hear them. We didn’t.
“Turn off the engine. I can’t hear anything.”
“Vesper Sparrow. Horned Lark. Meadowlark.” I grasped for other sounds in the inky depths.
“Stop crinkling that granola bar wrapper.”
A frumpy bird flew across the road. Our pulses quickened and I immediately cut the engine. Still nothing. I was starting to worry because we’d driven several tenths of a mile too far. People in the van began to ask pointed questions about the decision to drive beyond the bird. Collective decision making has never existed when the driver can be blamed for any potential problems. We circled back.
As if by magic, our eyes adjusted in the still waxing light. Something, looking uncannily like a pillow filled with a pair of matching balloons, adorned with a pointy fan on one end, was pirouetting about outside. We started to notice these queer shapes all over in the twilight. We were here.
Out on the sage it sounded as if a group of overweight people wearing corduroys were alternating between running and resting on elliptical machines – their inner thighs rubbing together audibly for contracted periods. As the pants rubbed, they were desperately clutching milkshakes and the viscous liquid was popping about in odd percussion inside their cups. This is a perfect example why written descriptions of avian sounds pale in comparison to a recording or a real thing. I’ve merely succeeded in describing weight watchers subscribers.
Jokes aside, what was really happening out there? Why had we woke at 4 AM, driven a sketchy muddy road, and crept about in the dark? In reality, the apparitions meters from our van were Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in Strutting Display. This was their lek, a place where males collect to show off for females. We were attending one of most magical avian displays in North America.
Portraying this scene, so compellingly unique and fascinating as it truly was, might just be beyond me. As I watched the males dance about in the hopes that the females, lurking on the sidelines might find them worthy of copulation, I was awash in a passion that takes me now and then. Evolutionary time spread before me, I was lost in a branching whirlwind of specialization and runaway selection. I found myself swelling with excitement, in a tizzy over the beauty of the natural world. This was the second Sage Grouse lek I’d ever seen and these males were unconcernedly bouncing about just meters from us.
The noises we were hearing were partially from esophageal pouches, which swelled as they prepared for the breeding season. Males fill these pouches with air and as they do so swish their wings against the feathers of their necks and breasts. The air sacs plop (like the milkshakes, which in this case call all the girls to the yard) and the wings rub against chest to create the swish (the corduroys).
Besides the fact that these birds were an amazing sight to see, they are becoming rarer and rarer. Biologists on the state and federal level have been dancing around listing these birds for years now. This area of Oregon happens to be a stronghold but that doesn’t mean they are safe. They’ve merely benefited from occurring in the least human inhabited corner of the lower 48. Mines, natural gas, windmills, cattle ranching, and hunting seem to trump saving an animal that is an embodiment of this habitat. Sure they’re chickens, but they’re North America’s largest, only residing in the West and in shrub steppe. They need to be nurtured not stomped out of existence by clumsy cattle and gas pads. I use resources, everyone can be blamed for these problems, but denying protection for special animals does nothing but further the problem, leaving them prone to further decline.
There were nearly thirty males strutting about, amply bosomed and obviously thoroughly out of their minds. Several of the males in more central locations fought over space, displaying at eachother and occasionally physically attacking. There’s a dearth of consistent information to explain their nuptial behavior. What is apparent is that prime males come together to display, only a few of these males actually mate, and the females will nest and raise young completely on their own. We noticed that the males in the middle of the lek seemed more active, both fighting more and displaying with more frequency. The best of the best?
The sun began to creep higher, casting a harsh glare across the display grounds. Before long the males would be flying off for the day, to return in the early hours the following morning. Soon these grounds would be quiet until next March when the strutting begins anew. We’d been perched in our van for nearly three hours and I was pretty sure I was getting deep vein thrombosis. It was time to slide on off and leave these outrageous birds to their shrubs and their flouting.
If this wasn’t a formative experience for the Birdwatch students then we’d probably never find one.
(Ok, so I lied, there will be one more entry to tie up all the loose ends on our trip to Malheur. We had fun, which invariably means I have too much to say!)