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The Boeing Creek Mystery

The dogs charged ahead of me. Switch backing down to Boeing creek, tearing through end of summer dust, leaving me a dirt curtain to huff. The creek itself pushes eventually down to hidden lake, carrying any available urban effluvia with it. Several weeks without rain hasn’t staid the flow and the lake has warnings about high levels of potentially harmful chemicals. Moisture crept about me as I descended to the bed, following a trail of growls and barks and splashes.

Despite all the dog noise, I felt the calm of a quiet place. Set aside by William Boeing when he purchased and built his mansion here in 1913, the habitat escaped some typical developments. Relict old growth Douglas fir and western hemlock plodded the slopes through the park. I twisted by them, looking up in childish awe, following redirected water over culverts. I kicked up glacial silt which the Puget Lobe ground into hills surrounding the current day Salish Sea, our Puget Sound. Fifteen thousand years ago, there would have been at least a couple thousand feet of ice over my head. A river would have been where the sound was before the continental ice sheet intruded and carved out the contemporary topography.

Lost in thought, enjoying lime sunlight filtered through devil’s club leaves, I realized I’d not heard the dogs in awhile. You may have misgivings about my dogs being off leash in a park. Sometimes I do too. Yet, there are greater evils in the world to worry about than dogs running loose in a half-wild city park. I agree with leashing dogs in true wilderness, but I enjoy the happy freedom of walking trails here with them bounding ahead. That said, they occasionally get into trouble, in the form of things not intended for consumption or things rubbed into fur that clashed with human olfactory sensitivities. When there wasn’t barking or jingling tags, I became worried.

Behind an indian plum, beneath a western red cedar, the dogs stood still snuffling. Something had caught their interest. Their noses directed at a pile of feathers. My first concern was that they’d killed something. However, sticks had been crossed atop a splayed corpse, alleviating my fears but also piquing my curiosity.

“Get. Go on, get. Lobo. Lilly. Get.”

Subservient glances, dropped wagging tails and ears, unsure backing away. I’d caught them before they’d rolled in whatever it was. Flies were swarming, their larvae writhed over dusky, brown and tan mottled feathers. Prodding with a stick, I uncovered identity. This wasn’t just any dead bird my canid friends had found, this was a great-horned owl (bubo virginianus).

How did it get here?

My extensive forensic training told me at least one thing, someone else had found this bird and put sticks over it, likely to deter future dog investigators. Another thing was obvious, this wasn’t a fresh kill. The body was slumped, pungent with decay, feathers soiled in rancid grease. It was in such a low, enclosed area that I could hardly see it having sat there in a weakened state, died, and fell to the ground.

Quite the mystery.

Did a person kill it? Was it sick?

I’ve got a theory. There’s been barred owls about the park. While I wasn’t around for their breeding season, I have reason to believe that they did breed there, based off what my parents told me. Barred owls can be extremely aggressive and while I’ve never heard of one killing a great-horned owl, I wouldn’t put it past them.

I’ll never really know. Yet, I like that it highlights how much nature can be in a small city park (at least two species of owls!).

 

Surreptitiously scooping up the body into a bag (to take to the Burke Museum or Seattle Audubon), I walked down to Hidden Lake. In November, bufflehead join the constant flock of mallards here. Stern warnings kept Lilly from trying to catch mallards in eclipse plumage, lacking flight to properly escape.

Sword ferns crashed aside as the dogs skittered up the hill, away from the lake. Distant lawn mowers hummed, a symptom of a dry day in Seattle. The disturbed land adjacent a playing field, now overtaken with invasive plants, was full of flickers, cedar waxwings, and house finches after seeds, fruits, and insects. Budlea, butterfly bushes, pleasant but still invasive, perfumed the narrow path. A Cooper’s hawk flew over with strong, rapid beats and the birds scattered for cover, unconcerned if the plants were native or not.

The dogs disappeared into the scotch broom. The leguminous seed pods popped in the heat, ready to disperse. People might then decide they needed to be pulled up, creating a perfect disturbed substrate for more reseeding and spreading. A feedback loop of failed attempts to control our mistakes. Scotch broom was great for stabilizing hillsides during road construction, but it’s a menace to those desiring the contrived purity of a native landscape. I can’t say I like it or want it choking out other plants, but sometimes I think we should focus time and attention on places that haven’t been spoiled. The area around Boeing creek is never going to be “pristine” again.

The bag of bones and feathers swung at my side. Inside it was a perspiring mess, fogging the plastic. As stomach churning as it was to think about a decomposing body fogging up a plastic bag, it also masked the occupant quite nicely. I didn’t really feel like explaining myself.

Lilly perked up as we entered a nice stand of second growth. She’s a hunter and while I don’t really mind her catching the occasional rat or gray squirrel, I always like to make sure it isn’t something else. A large black bird jumped from one truck to another, thankfully out of reach of my mongrel. A male pileated woodpecker. He flew off into the forest with an echoing call.

Skipping a cut back through the official off-leash area (because I had an owl in a bag), I took a side trail. We trod down again, through a glade of indian plum and hazelnut, mixed with non-native Hawthorne, cherry, and holly. We scared a hairy woodpecker up off a fallen log. Besides the scuttling and occasional playful snarl of a dog, it was a quiet afternoon.

Just before reaching the parking lot, we crested a hill with a clear view of the glacier carved, west side of the Olympic mountains. In several months they’d be constantly veiled by low slung clouds. In winter I typically only see the peaks. They stand higher than weather over the sound.

Disliking being pulled away from tasty blackberries, I leashed the mutts and got back into the car. The owl sat passenger, curled talons catching my eye. Maybe people killed this owl, a regrettable thing. Maybe they didn’t and it fell to something else altogether. People can’t control everything, trying to is how we create problems. Might as well make the best of it as is and protect what’s left.

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