Prairie grasses stretch in two directions. Their roots zig-zag deep into the soil keeping it earth bound while their skinny arms above ground stretch toward the low sun. The long stocks do not want the radiant warmth to disappear.
As the sun fades into the horizon the grasses bow down as though in prayer and in anticipation of heavy dew that will surely gather overnight this early spring eve. Meadowlarks sing to the golden skyline asking for just a bit more time to share their joy of living on the plains.
A pallet of pastel clouds and pale sky arch above my head. Only subtle rises of amber knolls and silhouetted birds perched on thistle stocks breakup the linear horizon encircling me 360 degrees.
The sun vanishes from the western sky leaving the wind to whisper in dusk. The birds find invisible roosting locations while crickets start up their nightly chirping. The sound is familiar like a parent telling the same bedtime story and sooths me as I lay in my sleeping bag, waiting for night to carry me away.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I came to birding — the art of watching wild wings — late in life. Yet there linger images deep from my past.
A snowy owl, whose midnight beak, gold eyes and cast shadow were the only things separating it from the white landscape it mastered over.
A lone bald eagle perched on a rock mid-river, fiercely pinning a fish beneath its deadly talons.
The kestrel hovering humming-bird style over a grassy meadow while hunting in the early morning light.
White pelicans floating on a lake that reminded me of canvas sailing ships.
Now I do more than note their existence. I see their struggle to survive, admire their strength, and recognize their fragility. Like a nosy neighbor my presence is not always welcome and frequently ignored as songbirds serenade each other and woodpeckers drum out messages in bird Morris code. They leave feathers on forest floors for me to discover and tuck into my cap. Their aerial life is one I envy and can almost fully experience in my dreams.