Faces in the Dark

Pencil sketch of barn owls © Claudia Strijek

They huddle close, their feathery bodies touching, passing warmth and security between themselves. Two pairs of  dark chocolate eyes are holes set inside white heart-shaped faces. I do not wish to disturb them yet I do not want to leave. This is my first encounter with barn owls and like a first kiss I want the moment to linger.

The two birds stare at me. I stare at them. Do they wonder what I’m thinking as much as I am wondering about their thoughts? Its difficult not to put such anthropomorphic characteristics on creatures like these owls. Perhaps it is simply my wish to believe we are communicating in some fashion, communicating on a level I rarely am able to achieve with most people.

The owls see me in a way that people often do not — simply human. They place no labels on me, they pass no judgment. For this alone I am grateful.

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Umpqua’s Rocky Bank

Aerial view of Umpqua River in central Oregon. © Claudia Strijek

I sat on a high spot on the rocky bank, my back to the cool breeze, and waiting for the sun to break through the clumps of silver clouds. After weeks of walking challenging terrain while conducting bird surveys, I was content to simply sit. The river flowed wide, swiftly and noisily, as the water hit in-stream boulders. The din, however, did not overpower the cries of spotted sandpipers searching for food as they scurried along the bank’s edge and along potholes. I looked cross-river to take in the contrasting lime-green big leaf maples and alders with the forest green Douglas firs – all of them almost met the water’s edge. This was excellent habitat for a variety of birds, mammals and the tallest firs provided lookout posts for bald eagles and osprey in search of their next meal.

Upstream on the distance hills, ran a clean-cut swath of pale green through the middle of the forest that looked like a recently shaved tan face. Managed timberland. A closer look with my binoculars revealed three stages of growth and harvest lines. I looked away thinking how unnatural those straight lines looked and tried not to pass judgment on those timber bosses. (For all I knew the last piece of paper I used came from those trees.)

As I continued to glass my surrounding, a figure popped out of the woods where the trail was. I watched this older man make his way to the water’s edge. A wide brimmed hat with a drawstring topped his head and shaded his grey and white bearded face. Black suspenders held his baggy pants up and his potbelly filled his midriff like a small beach ball. His gate was sure and stead, despite his age. Once he reached the river he gazed intently into the water with dark sunglasses — clearly a fisherman searching for fish. As he came closer to me I read a patch on his shirt that read “Project Healing Waters.” I was familiar with the program that helps war vets with trauma through fly-fishing outings. We chatted a bit about his role in the organization, the condition of the river and general health benefits of fly-fishing. A brief silence fell between us as if to confirm the river’s power to heal. Then as he turned to take leave he said, more to himself than me I suspect, “Yup, might have to come back here tonight and do some fishing.” “Good luck,” I replied as my eye caught sight of a soaring osprey overhead. I hoped both would be having fish for dinner that evening.

 

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Field Work Follies

It’s not all a bed of roses out there. (Well there are roses but they too have thorns.)

  • Rain that can chill to the bone.
  • Wind that will drive you insane.
  • Sun so intense you swear you are melting.
  • Bushes intent on tearing off your clothes.
  • Terrain so rough you need to duct tape your boots.
  • Joints and other body parts that scream at the end of the day, “What are you doing to us?”
  • Squirrels caught in your fan belt (very dead and very oderous).
  • Mice trying to get into your vehicle (best trick is to drive down a bumpy road ASAP and hope you bounce it out).
  • Socks and shoes so stinky they want to walk away from themselves.
  • Clothes so stiff from dirt and sweat they could pose as scarecrows without propping.
  • Insects seen and unseen wanting your blood.

    midges with marsh wren in background
  • Bugs so thick your camera focuses on them instead of bird you are aiming at.
  • Poisonous plants that can make you scratch for days.
  • Cold food that should be hot; hot food that should be cold.
  • Broken or lost eyeglasses leaving you feeling like Mr. Magoo.
  • A slow leak in your air mattress leaving you on the cold ground around 2am.
  • A small hole in your tent that only a mosquito can fit through — and of course does.

 

Is it all worth it? Must be because I keep coming back to it.

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Red Eyes

Spotted Towhee – © Claudia Strijek

The old ones were here when the erupting earth spewed forth a fire river. They saw the red and orange molten rock fill the valley and saw huge plumes of smoke. They stared at the changing landscape for too long and the red burned into their eyes. So now we all have red eyes to remind us of a time that passed but may come again.

This is my take on a Native American tale I heard not long ago. After being in Lava Beds NP for two weeks walking over all that cooled lava flow I could not help but think of this common bird with its red eye.

Silhouette

Juniper trees rooted on the sloping hillside are silhouetted against the dawn sky. They appear on dimensional like black paper cut outs. The sky gives no sense of depth either. The white light of the morning star and quarter moon are punched out of midnight blue that graduates to orange along the horizon. A western tanager sings it’s robin-like song, as if to coax the sun to rise just a little quicker.

sunrise at Lava Beds NP

Eyes Upon Me

I glance up haphazardly thru thin trees, binoculars in hand, looking for winged activity. My eyes meet a fierce stare only a few feet above me. I freeze in place hoping to not cause this little hunter to flush. Two small golden eyes, surrounded by spotted feathers forming a disc shape on either side of a pale hooked beak, are the features I notice immediately. How long have you been watching me, I ask myself? Like so many forest dwellers I’m certain its detection is easily ten-times my own and has in all likelihood noticed my fellow bird surveyors and me for some time already.

I whisper to the others of my discovery and they slowly move in for a better look. The small bird rotates its head towards the new onlookers without body movement in that manner which all owls are capable of — a motion often mimicked in movies by aliens or possessed people but never as gracefully executed. It views us with disregard, perhaps even some contempt as if to confirm who has the upper hand and rules the forest.

This is the Northern Pygmy-owl, one of the smallest owls in North America, standing on average 6.5” tall and wing span 15”. It is diurnal and feeds primarily on songbirds in coniferous forests. A very aggressive hunter, it will search for prey in tree cavities as well as snatch birds in flight or on the ground. In case its hunting prowess were not enough its “false eyes” feather pattern on the nape keeps all prey edgy and on alert as well as deflect its enemies.

I slowly back away for several yards, then sprint back to the truck for my camera. A “life list” bird for me, I don’t want to miss this chance to get some photographs. I run back into the forest with my camera hoping the owl would still be perched. I stop short of my original position to relocate the bird. It had not flown and I snap several close-ups, grateful and amazed at my luck.

Zoomed in I notice its feather pattern more so — in profile I see tiny feathers protruding between the eyes and beak. Its rusty dark brown plumage resembles the bark color of incents cedar. But it’s the false eyes that really capture me. Unlike the wide and round real ones, these black and white feathered patterns are narrowed and angry. Both pairs seem to be constantly searching, watching, scanning; this pint-size predator transfixes me.

It is these encounters that draw me to this important biological work season after season — there is magic, inspiration and rewards beyond words.

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Breeding Bird Survey Season Underway

I have been conducting song bird breeding surveys for several years. This year I’m working for Klamath Bird Observatory (http://www.klamathbird.org/), based out of Ashland, Oregon. I am part of a 5-person crew but we each travel independently to survey sites in southern Oregon and northern California.

Over the next 2.5 months I will posting my experiences, observations and of course many photos. I hope you will find all my work to inspiring and informative.

Road Trip

I hate driving interstate highways. The constant visual assault of billboards and illuminated signs beg you to buy something, believe in something, visit someplace, live someplace, eat something, drink something, do something, don’t do something. They hide any possible view into the horizon and define concrete city blocks.

I draft several diesel 16-wheelers carrying everything from new boats, sheds, and building materials to food, fuel, and Walmart goods, wondering how much speed the drivers took that day to complete their runs. It must be a maddening life for them.

And the leisure travel season has already begun as indicated by the plethora of large campers on the road. These enormous homes on wheels sport painted names on their sides like Freedom Rider, Windstar, and Featherlite — oxymorons to be sure. Smaller campers bear bumper stickers that describe retirees spending their children’s inheritance or the owner’s life philosophy – “A bad day fishing is still better than a good day in the office.”

After eight hours of this type of travel I am relieved to finally leave the freeway behind and get on a two-lane road heading into the retiring sun. I relax a bit as I slow down to a reasonable speed and now see farmers tilling soil creating a slight orange glow around their tractors as dust rises and evening rays penetrate. In the background the southeast Oregon hillsides are bright green with spring grass.

Another 30 minutes of travel brings me to BLM land where I quickly spot a dirt road leading away from the pavement and I take it to find my campsite for the night. Down this road for a mile or so there is a two-track where I can see a cattle pen and water trough in the draw. I pull off onto this path and find a level spot the park. I step out of the van, take in a deep breath, let my shoulders drop, face the cool breeze, and slowly let my breath escape again.

After dinner I sit on the ground, tea in hand, and stretch my legs out on the soft grass beneath me. I listen to the Horned and Meadow Larks sing a few end-of-day songs. The sky is partly filled with clouds outlined in pale orange for a short time before the sun’s glow completely disappears. A sliver of new moon hangs in the zone between cobalt on the horizon and midnight blue directly above my head. My eyes smile. I am finally on my road trip.

Spring in San Luis Valley, CO

A visit to the San Luis Valley in Colorado is always a unique experience. The landscape is extreme — a flat valley filled with greasewood, wetlands, agricultural fields and sand dunes, bordered east and west by saw-toothed peaks and extensive wilderness areas.

This time of year the valley comes alive with migrating birds. The Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge is well known for supporting  Rocky Mountain Sandhill Cranes (Grus Canadensis) as they stop over to rest and replenish before continuing to their breeding grounds in northwestern Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah. Their throaty calls fill the air and their 6′ wing span surely create a current all on their own.

Since the cranes number in the thousands, their presence can often overshadow the variety of other birds at the refuge. A kaleidoscope of ducks, geese, and song birds find food and protection from predators among the shallow ponds, bulrush and cattails. The baby blue bill of a male Rudy duck, contrasts with the golden reeds. Rusty-brown, iridescent green and white patches of the Northern Shoveler reflect in rippling water while straining food through its signature long, flat bill. Male American Coots appear to walk on water in pursuit of females during courtship.

The signs of spring always inspire me. It generates hope as my heart and mind travel on beating wings toward unknown destinations.