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.
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.
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.
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.
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.