Category: wildlife art

Great horned owl, Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center

Great horned owl, Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center

Owl legends run the gamut across peoples and history, and say perhaps more about people than owls.  The most simplistic and superstitious medieval myths associate the owl’s adaptation to night with terrible things.  The owl’s superior ability to hunt at night- along with the cat and the wolf- was not viewed as an adaptive trait: instead, it raised insecurity among our species, which stumbles around in the dark. We once feared becoming a target of animal night hunters, though now we are afraid of each other after the sun sets.  As it always does, our fear and insecurity resulted in our isolation and animal persecution.

Not all peoples viewed the owl as a witch incarnate, or symbol of death.  Some owl myths celebrate the owl as the keeper of souls and wisdom, a healer, or a welcome usher to the Otherworld.

The legend of Redfeather

If the Chippewa legend of Redfeather1 is true, then a cadre of owls are currently plotting to turn throngs of photographers into bird food.

Redfeather was a bratty, destructive kid who entertained himself killing animals that birds needed for food.  The heron whose chicks were starving tried to negotiate with Redfeather, to no avail due to his apparent ADHD and narcissism. The birds all convened to find a solution to their pending starvation, which came in the form of Owl.  When Redfeather tried to kill Owl with an arrow, Owl carried Redfeather off to a treetop to sit imprisoned until his owlets and other young birds were large enough to feast on the kid.  The villagers, who acknowledged Redfeather was a dysfunctional miscreant, sought supernatural help for his release anyway, and hosted a feast of penance at the direction of spirits.  Owl returned Redfeather only after the now-chastened boy promised never to misuse the food of the birds.

When the Northern pygmy owl at Chinook Bend Natural Area sees people crowding so closely that mice and voles are chased away, he may be plotting to speak to Owl.  When photographers at Eide Road start bushwhacking a path to take twig-free pictures of the Long-eared owl, they may be targeted by Owl for future owlet chow. Northern pygmy owl

Or so one would hope. 

There are many wonderful wildlife watchers out there, like the softly whispering couple I passed on Leque Island, returning from a photography foray on a stormy, lonely Superbowl Sunday . They beamed, delighted and enthralled by the long-and short-eared owls cruising low above the rough faded grass for hapless rodents.  After they left, I tried to walk as quietly as they had, still managing to flush a couple of ground-roosting shorties when I set my eyesight too high and distant.ShortEar7

There is Joey, the lively photographer from the Stanwood area, who carefully measured distance and laid branches at the limit people should stand near the long-eared owl.  And the mystery protector who lodged a large dead limb across the path people had beaten to the day roost to discourage people from entering. And the photography instructor keeping his small class with the impossibly large lenses at a polite distance, and quiet.  There is Paul Bannick, author of The Owl and the Woodpecker ( , who will speak to a reporter about the great habitat at Chinook Bend, but who will not name the place on the news to protect the owl. These people are viewed favorably by Owl, and will probably achieve a peaceful, safe place once they pass over to the Next World.

And then there is the jerk who left the bait mouse on a railing by the parking lot and road at Chinook Bend.  There are the people bushwhacking to get clear photos of the Long-eared owl that likes dense brushy cover to roost in.  There was the monumental idiot at Boundary Bay trespassing in the protected marsh area and throwing flotsam at snowy owls to get flight pictures during the day, when they should be resting. And there is Greg’s story about photographers too cheap to buy a pile of bait mice to tempt Great gray owls. To save some pesos, they reportedly put the bait mouse in a glass jar so the owl couldn’t eat it.  I do hope this is myth, but you never know how low people will go.

And for what? For one more hyper-high resolution digital image of an owl.  Not a beautiful drawing, painting, or sculpture, or story or myth, but one more in a bazillion too sparkly-sharp digital images found everywhere on the Web. For the badge of honor that comes with owning a lens worth the cost of a car and getting the settings right.

Long-eared owl at my house; attention posture

Long-eared owl at my house; attention posture

The best photographers- the ones who know owls, their habitat, and behaviors, the ones who wait for the natural, relaxed action, the ones who respect the birds- they are lost in a flurry of images from people who aim to be the next NatGeo rock star.  And even NatGeo has raised the ire of Owl with their practices.

Getting my own legend right

For my part, here is my promise to Owl.  I will celebrate Owl, and make Owl and his kind homes- habitat, perches, and nests. I will continue supporting several rehab owls that have nervous tics and unequal sized pupils, damage typical of a low flying hunter slamming into a traveling vehicle. They are ambassadors now that they have lost the freedom to fly the night sky beneath the stars and moon. I will try to be quieter and more observant in the field. I will follow Tony Angell’s advice to learn owls by field sketching, only taking photos (and mediocre ones at that) for reference. I will only buy photographs and photography books when I know the photographer is ethical. I will keep owl visitors to my property hidden in a bird Witness Protection Program.

Practically speaking, Owl is saving my trees from girdling by voles, and my barn and house from raids by rodents. Owl is functionally a night-flying friend and protector in my landscape.

But Owl is something else to me, too. Through a lifetime of grinding practicality, paying bills and taxes and working hard, I earned the privilege of daydreaming and mythology. In my mythology, Owl is a human from long ago alight inside with a memory of ages, wearing an elaborate feathered mask and enduring the synthetic grime and excess of the modern world.  Owl is waiting for something, biding his time on sentinel duty, watching over me.  Owl knows, though I do not, what it is that will happen. When it is time, Owl will watch me go.

1My modern adaptation of story from, which credits Beatrice Blackwood, 1929, “Tales of the Chippewa Indians,” Folk-Lore 40[4]:315-44.

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MaleAnnasThe hummingbird was not going to wait for me to hang the feeder. On a cold morning in Western Washington, with uncommon snow on the ground, the male Anna’s wanted his sugar water, and now. As I walked toward the post, feeder dangling from a cord, he darted straight for the yellow plastic flower and buried his bill as I stood there feeling like I was being mugged by a creature weighing less than an ounce. I am an uneasy host: Anna’s hummingbirds are more frequent winter residents here due to warming temperatures and late-blooming non-native flowers. Aside from insects, there is no high energy food to support their intense metabolism during the winter. That’s why I got busted red-handed with a nectar feeder by a hungry hummer.

These interactions make some people feel special, selected from a crowd of ungainly, insensitive primates by an alien and delicate living thing. We transform the experience by subtracting the feeder and attributing the encounter to our inherent goodness, to some juju magic the animal must see in us. If we hunt, we pride ourselves on our power and grace as we harvest an animal from the plot of rich forage we planted to attract it; it wasn’t the food, but the fine shot that made the day. Artists are no more saintly than hunters; we lift the image of an animal from a feeder and carefully place it in habitat we viewed somewhere else.

But for the animal, it is all about food.

Here in America, the majority of people are at the pinnacle of the food pyramid, so well-fed we are dying of it and clinging to one fad diet after another. I am as guilty as any of indulging in “comfort foods” and mood-enhancing drinks. We can waste 30% of the food we buy, and feed pet animals and wildlife to boot. Many of us can fill bird feeders with fatty, protein-rich seed hearts and pour clean water boiled with sugar into a nectar container.

Black-headed grosbeak at a seed feeder

Black-headed grosbeak at a seed feeder

Far away, there are places where people would make a meal of that same seed and sugar water. For the malnourished person, feeding an animal involves a calculation: if I feed this animal, it will become my food, and it will provide me with more nutrition than what I feed it. There is no mystique, no ego, no pride, only practicality.

A Hoffman's woodpecker feasts on a banana at a wildlife photography resort in Costa Rica

A Hoffman’s woodpecker feasts on a banana at a wildlife photography resort in Costa Rica

Food is a powerful tool of wildlife habituation. This tool is used by backyard wildlife enthusiasts, hunters, government wildlife managers, and even resorts specializing in wildlife photography. Concentrated sources of food- feeders, salt blocks, hay bales and rich stands of corn and clover- bring the most animals at once. Feeding may be an alternative to certain death: the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife feeds elk at set locations in the winter to keep them from straying into orchards where bullets will soon follow. Feeders may support backyard wildlife that would starve among sprawling housing developments with manicured yards. Animals tricked into overwintering by climate change may benefit from off-season feed.

However, wildlife habituation to food does not equate to magical bonding, and its costs can’t be subtracted from the human-wildlife equation. Competition for a rich food source can cause injury. Disease can be passed at a feeder like influenza on a crowded train full of coughing people. If there is no shelter from storms or a safe place to den or nest, animals and birds may die or sacrifice the next generation for easy meals. Predation increases: hawks have a distracted crowd of birds to pick from and crows may visit a feeder and then a nearby nest to eat another bird’s eggs.

A flowering lobelia attracts hummingbirds even in a pot

A flowering lobelia attracts hummingbirds even in a pot

The Anna’s hummingbird that does not migrate may die if I stop feeding it, or if the weather returns to historic norms.

Habituating wildlife to a food source can be a problem for people, too. Garbage-conditioned bears in Yellowstone National Park were killed when bear-human conflicts rose after the Park Service suddenly changed policy and closed dumps. Hand-fed ground squirrels and chipmunks at Mt. Rainier steal food and bite people to get a bit of sandwich. Mountain goats charge people because some have let them lick the salty sweat off their arms, or fed them. Backyard feeders attract unintended visitors like rats, raccoons, and opossums: animals we view as pests that view our houses as their homes.

A "bad bear" lives the best life it can inside a fence at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. He will never return to the wild after habituation to human food, but at least he is alive!

A “bad bear” lives the best life it can inside a fence at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. He will never return to the wild after habituation to human food, but at least he is alive!

Animals, though they feel more than we can bear to admit, are not human. Maybe the food bank, the food drop, the mission, or the refugee camp is more appropriate for people. We are too many to live in the wild and we don’t really want to live there anymore. Critters, even domesticated, will return to the wild if there is enough food, water, and shelter available. They will eat plants, bugs, slugs and each other happily, with room to avoid each other when necessary and to join together when there is benefit.

We can continue misinterpreting an abundance of animals or birds at a feeding area as a sign of plenty and health. We can pride ourselves on being a backyard St. Francis, a clever artist, an expert shutterbug or a premier hunter when we are just exploiting the tendency of resource-limited creatures to migrate to an easy meal. We can allow wild lands to be developed or fragmented to the point that they become empty and lifeless.

This young mule deer and its sibling stayed for a week, eating grass and wild shrubs that are adapted to browsing.

This young mule deer and its sibling stayed for a week, eating grass and wild shrubs that are adapted to browsing.

Alternatively, maybe we should stop destroying habitat. Maybe we should prize great tracking skills, the glimpse of an animal in nature, the patience to wait for a great picture or clean shot. If we want to capture wildlife in artwork and photographs, perhaps we should develop the skills and persistence to find them in the wild. If we want to hunt, maybe we should abandon the bait block, the crop stand and critter cam and learn to identify habitat, to track and to aim well. If we just want to enjoy wildlife around our homes, maybe we need to plant gardens, woodlands, hedgerows and wetlands for local and migratory wildlife.

A butterfly sitting on my pack as I ate lunch wasn't a supernatural message.  The insect was warming up on heat absorbing dark fabric on a chilly day, and likely taking up mineral from sweat.

A butterfly sitting on my pack as I ate lunch wasn’t a supernatural message. The insect was warming up on heat absorbing dark fabric on a chilly day, and likely taking up mineral from sweat.

For now, I will continue hanging nectar feeders for the Anna’s hummingbird that should have departed to Mexico for the winter, but perhaps hung on because the non-native bee balm flowered until the frosts arrived. I may have been his downfall, his fall deceit, so I will feed him this winter. But I will not pretend that his charming insistence on stopping me in my tracks means anything more than a demand for the debt of calories I now owe.

A snowy owl unwilling to become habituated during a rare wintertime visit to Boundary Bay, Delta, B.C.

A snowy owl unwilling to become habituated during a rare wintertime visit to Boundary Bay, Delta, B.C.

IMG_1332_edited-1Sometimes we are saved from our own thoughtless enthusiasm by the well-intentioned fates. And then, when we’re flexible enough to allow intervention and change course, we are rewarded.  In September 2013, I found myself bailing out of a week-long backpacking trip planned months before and into a thought-provoking grizzly watching experience standing shoulder to shoulder with nationally known wildlife artists.

We were going to backpack the Heart Lake Loop in Yellowstone National Park, Brenda and I, embarking in September on a trip with  5 nights of camping, a climb of Mt. Sheridan, a few river fords made safe by the drought and late season.  I wanted to visit another section of Yellowstone, having packed into the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone and Slough Creek up north. Heart Lake is the civilized trip; Two Ocean Plateau is the way-out-there wilderness backpack I wanted to do next.  Brenda, a Jersey native gone Western long ago, loves Yellowstone passionately and volunteers tirelessly for the park.

Brenda had packed, repacked, and repacked again, fretting over the weight of her pack and food that would not fit,  until 12:00 noon, far later than we intended to start down the trail.  It was warm and we were tired from sitting up the night before at her house, gabbing.  Almost at the get-go, Brenda crumpled to the ground with a torn muscle, stiff from a backpack the week before and overstressed by her heavy pack.  She was distraught half by the injury, and half by the prospect of ruining my long-standing plans, and tried to stand and keep moving, with the same awkward result.  I am absolutely opposed to having anyone try to persevere injured for my entertainment, and firmly announced it was time to quit.  We went back to the ranger station where the park ranger on duty suggested she get some medical attention, and that I abandon my plans.  In grizzly country, Yellowstone does not like to hand out permits to solo travelers.

Brenda is a nurse and should know better; she decided to wait it out and change plans.  Some old friends from Denver were in the area, a group of bicyclists making an annual ride and an artist friend, in for the National Wildlife Art Museum annual show and some wildlife photography and plein air painting.  We thought we might hang out in Yellowstone, but when we hit the roadway and saw the sign for Grand Teton, we threw plans to the wind and turned south.


After the storm, 30 minutes later

After the storm, 30 minutes later

Before the storm

Before the storm

The diversion in plans was fortuitous, since the skies opened up for next few days with sometimes violent thunderstorms and serious warnings for this area broadcast on the radio.  One night, lying in the tent below tall trees, the tent wall suddenly lit up with a flash of lighting.  Before I could say “one one thousand” thunder exploded above us, vibrating the tent walls.  Torrents of  rain pelted the tent.  The thunderstorms swept through, chasing each other like gods in some otherworldly battle game.  We stopped  at Oxbow Bend and found ourselves running for cover in the car, then emerging 10 minutes later to view a shimmering sunset of bronze, copper, and gold. That week of backpacking would have deteriorated into an exercise in misery, sodden and stinky gear, and friendship-destroying crabbiness due to being tentbound with wet, rank-smelling gear.  That type of trip is best done solo as penance or self-discovery.

That night, Brenda’s bicyclist friends arrived late, soaked and cold from an ascent and descent over the 11,000 foot pass.  They all had dinner together at camp and talked for hours.  I was tired from days of driving, late nights, the aborted trip, too much work before I left, a friendship going south as my friend imploded his own life, and so on. I lay in the tent instead of visiting, listening to the rain, the voices, drifting in and out of light sleep.

Setting of the National Museum of Wildlife Art

Setting of the National Museum of Wildlife Art

On the first stormy day, we dodged in and out of severe thunderstorms on the  drive to the National Museum of Wildlife Art outside of Jackson to view the annual Western Visions show (  The architecture of the museum is the first piece of art you see, a wood and stone structure artfully designed to evoke a rock outcropping on the hill above the refuge.  The sculpture path winds around the facility and across the ledge, a dramatic and most appropriate setting for large scale animal sculptures. A bull moose appears to be walking down the path as if we had stumbled across him on a trail. The interior is loftier and more spacious than the exterior promises, modern yet organic in feel.

Sculpture Walking

Sculpture Walking

The museum does a wonderful job of education and interpretation.  I learned that wildlife art  became so popular in America because here, anyone could hunt, whereas in Europe, it was the privilege of the titled only.  Struck as I was by my own loss of a disintegrating friend, I found my face stiffening to avoid tearing up at a sculpture of an old, injured elephant bull being helped by his comrades (a true scene, apparently, and chosen to reflect the World War raging around the artist). The signage pointed out the license taken to show family groupings that never exist in nature, where un-Christian promiscuity is the norm and males frequently run off and leave single mothers to their own (much to the relief and sometimes insistence of the single mothers).

My favorite wildlife artist is internationally renowned Robert Bateman, whose charismatic bison bull, “Chief” embodies to me the power of 65 million bison that once roamed North America.  His works are tremendously atmospheric and sometimes challenging to view, like the seal entangled in driftnet, and dead, oil-soaked birds. Like author Edward Abbey, Mr. Bateman is in his own way unapologetically curmudgeonly about our assaults on the natural world, unrelentingly devoted to nature, and I admire him for that.

Bateman was long ago reviled by other artists for apparently oversaturating the market with art and prints, though for most of us, his reproductions are our only opportunity to bring wildlife art of that caliber into our homes.   And for some, those prints are an inspirational reminder that pushes us to go to museums and buy memberships, to contribute to foundations, perhaps someday to buy an original.  To hell with the kerfluffle about reproductions- I am glad such a visually strong advocate for wildlife has been able to earn a living at it.

Entryway Garden

Entryway Garden

Brenda and I  moseyed through the museum, lulled into that museum stupor that eventually occurs when brain and eyes are full.  We made sure to find her friend Bill’s painting and sketch, and I looked for Joshua Tobey’s sculpture and Lindsay Scott’s drawing.  Then we went to lunch and talked some more before returning to camp and meeting up with Bill, who shared our site and camped in his truck.  With another stormy night, I envied his sleeping space.

Hobbling the trail above Jenny Lake

Hobbling the trail above Jenny Lake

I did set out on a backpack alone, since Grand Teton is the Wild West compared to Yellowstone and had no problem issuing a solo permit in bad weather and bear country to do the Paintbrush Divide/Cascade Canyon loop. I hiked up in deteriorating weather, passing an exhausted young guy who said he camped in the thunderstorm and snow at Holly Lake, barely slept, and gave up going over the pass.  I did pretty much the same; with backpacking boots, no ice axe, and no buddy, I figured the 4 inches of ice on my tent was a sign to enjoy a nice hot breakfast and mosey slowly out to Jenny Lake, enjoying the sunbreaks along the way.  Brenda and I met up and she told me how she and Bill found moose by Gros Ventre, how he was traveling around in a dispersed group with several of the artists, all calling one another to signal a wildlife find.

And late that night, the call came.  Three grizzlies, maybe 2 1/2 years old, on a moose carcass.  Not going anywhere too fast, but had been there a couple days, so no telling what was left.  Brenda wanted to take the boat across Jenny Lake and hobble, still sore, up the trail.  Anxious to see the grizzlies before they left, I bolted up the trail to wear off some energy, then turned around and met Brenda.  We packed up and headed out to find a campsite, then the grizzlies.  The Forest Service campground was marginal, by the highway, and plastered with signs warning that it was a grizzly bear frequenting area, and tent camping was not recommended.  Since it didn’t say “not allowed”, we went for it.  And then we headed up the road to the scene, looking for Pete Zaluzec, an artist Bill says is unmistakable for his resemblance to Santa Claus. Santa Claus was not the artist Pete is, but the description helped us find him instantly.

Bear Paparazzi

Bear Paparazzi

Pete and Bill said we  missed the morning’s excitement, and arrived in the heat of the day as the bears slept in the shade near where they had buried the carcass.  This was my first real field lesson in grizzly signs:  if I had been hiking by, likely hot and wearing sunglasses and not seeing too much around me, I might never have noticed the dug-up dirt by the tree.  The ravens were quiet, so I would have cruised right by, and like one hapless coyote, found myself confronted by a large bear exploding out of the shadows to defend its food.  The coyote was faster than I could ever be, so it survived. If I had approached from the other direction, I would have simply tripped over them and likely paid dearly for that little surprise.

The bears eventually did as they had for days, and rose to pass through the woods to a pond on the other side.  That’s when things became even more educational.

BrothersDrinkingWe drove around a corner to the ponds and found a line of cars forming.  Word of mouth spreads rapidly among artists and local grizzly watchers.  And these were famous bears, two of them cubs of Bear 610, one of them an adopted cub of her mother, Bear 399.  Bear 610 is the last of Bear 399’s cubs, the rest removed for cattle predation.  I find this out because a few SUV’s show up with stickers that say, “I saw Bear 399” and “I saw Bear 610”. And when a Wyoming Fish and Game Biologist shows up, the owners, women with Germanic accents, hiss at him loudly: “Zer is zee babeesittah, come to vatch zee babees.”  I think it is a joke, but he says not so much.  The roadside bears have become habituated to people, too habituated.  Defenders of Bears 399 and 610 have followed the bears diligently, perhaps meaning to protect them from removal. This has backfired a little, with the cubs ending up between to lodge buildings at a resort recently.  They were hazed with firecrackers and rubber bullets.  Fortunately, a hunter shot this moose and took only backstraps and roast, said the biologist, leaving the rest for the cubs, who smelled it from 5 miles away and came up from town.  They are still at risk, he says, and need to stay away from people.  “All they need is for one of these people to drop a lunch, and it’s over,” he says.  “These bears are one peanut butter sandwich away from death.” He says he’s not an enforcement officer, so he can’t do much to keep people away.

The cubs were weaned this year at 2 1/2 years old, coming out of the den thin.  The biologist said everyone was surprised they made it on their own.  They have fattened up on a good berry season, and if they can den up without too much trouble, they will disperse next year and hopefully stay wild.

The biologist is driving a worn work truck, accompanied by his dog, a terrier type obsessed with a slimy rubber ball. The biologist is driving around posting signs on trailheads because there are six grizzly boars in the area on carcasses, and they’re in a mean mood, even charging people on horseback.  He came to this site because a hunter reported that the line of cars was blocking the bears from reaching the cleaner of the two ponds. It’s that time of year for the bears, where they’re putting down 20,000 calories a day to make it through the winter.  It’s also the hunting time of year, when successful sportsmen and women are leaving gut piles that attract bears, or even partial carcasses like this one.  Hunters are out there on foot and on horseback, and confrontations are occurring as a result.

YouLookLikeFoodtoMePondPlayThe unwary bears come out of the trees and drink from the pond, then wade in and appear to be playing with submerged logs and pond weeds, sometimes moving in a sort of soggy bruin synchronized swimming routine.  There is a little play swatting, splashing.  One bear, chocolate colored, gets out of the pond.  I keep watching the bears in the pond, figuring he has gone into the woods.  I am on the edge of all the important artists and wildlife watchers, feeling small with my tiny super-zoom and artistic anonymity, really just an intruder.  And then I look up and see that the bear has circled around the pond and is standing 50 feet away from me, staring.

“Uh, bear on the right,” I say nervously, wondering whether the bear would really charge a crowd of thirteen.

“Where?” says a photographer, whirling around with a huge lens and tripod.  The bear turns and walks toward the woods.  I have learned one more lesson taught by the couple who got attacked in 2010 on the Mary Mountain Trail in Yellowstone: never lose sight of a bear in the area, watch for it to circle back on you.  He died for this mistake, she escaped.

A French television crew has showed up by the forested area to film the bears. They were making a documentary in Yellowstone and Grand Teton and got word of the bears. I wonder what they will say about these bears.  Are they giant, frightening predators, waiting to prey upon the unwary hiker or hunter with fang and claw?  Or are they increasingly depleted large mammals caught between the wilderness and our predator-intolerant civilization, walking the thin wire between wildness and a familiarity that will mean certain death for them?

Contemplating the future without peanut butter sandwiches

Contemplating a future without peanut butter sandwiches

We treat Bill to dinner at the Hatchet Resort, delicious pan-fried trout, and talk mega-history.  Bill was a zoologist at the Denver Museum of Natural History before he became a full-time artist.  Besides having a finely developed understanding of animal anatomy, his experience has given him an expansive perspective on the planet, reaching across time immemorial and so stratospheric that barely visible are the specks of three cubs, a few artists, and a couple nice pan-fried trout dinners.  He says we may tear the skin of the earth apart, send streams of poisons across the land and into the waters and atmosphere, but the planet will heal itself when we finally do ourselves in.  The earth may look different, he says, but it will persevere and sew itself back together again.  It is just too large and too deep and too powerful for us to really change it much.

WarningAnd on that lofty note, we pick our way along the highway to Hatchet Campground to sleep easily despite the bear warnings, knowing that the cubs are resting far away, near a natural food source all their own.

Having Survived the Night

Having survived the night

Thus ended a week that was supposed to be an adventure in backcountry travel and  navigation, but instead, became one more skipping stone in a stream of perspectives on our human experience in a natural world.



For more information:

Heart Lake Loop-

Paintbrush Divide/Cascade Canyon Loop –

The Wildlife News-

Bill Alther’s art-

Pete Zaluzec’s art-

The Hatchet Resort-


The Year of the Owls


Long-eared owl, Prismacolor Pencil on hot press Bristol board

This is a year of many, many owls.

The owls have begun to take over guard of this place, started to assume ownership. I welcomed them in 2007 with owl perches in the fields and the first night heard a great horned owl calling from one close to the house. They became more frequent visitors several years ago when my restoration projects began to mature: the trees and shrubs grew wildly, the slash piles carefully placed harbored mice and insects, grass grew rough and thick, and the voles started to multiply. The owls now occupy in number, though they are rarely seen. There was the headless rabbit draped on the dormer roof one night, visible the next morning from the skylight across the second floor landing. The rabbit’s body did not disappear during the day, when the eagles and hawks fly, but the next night, telling that its captor was an owl.

OwlKamiakbutteThis winter, a tall grey form lifted silently from the fence line behind the barn frequently when I fetched the horses at night. The chalky whitewash of calcium-rich scat streaked below the stall windows told me they hunt in the barn at night; one morning, I turned on the light to find the snow white face of a barn owl staring at me from its perch on Tigger’s window. The barn owls nightly rent the air with shrieks as they streak across the fields hunting for mice. Great horned owls take up position on the raptor perches and in the trees during the November-December courting season, the males calling “Who, who who cooks for you?” and the females answering in the voice of a crying cat. A pair’s vocalizations occasionally engage other owls, and I lie awakened, listening to calls triangulate throughout the valley. I see screech owls and barred owls in dim light, as dark silhouettes in trees, wheeling and battling silently over the territorial boundary of the river, fluttering across the fields, lifting noiselessly from trees and fence posts.

ShortEaredOwlI had a strange experience one evening as I was walking through the yard from turning off the water spigot. The soft kitchen light glowed in the dark, reflecting the silvery grey of freezing fog rising from the windless, damp valley toward the charcoal night sky. Yellow light illuminated a small white tuft of feathery down falling slowly through the moist, cold night air, rhythmically pulsating like a jellyfish in a motionless sea as it drifted earthward. I held out a gloved hand and it settled into my open palm. I heard no sound of air being bent by feathers, no call in the night, and so I knew an owl had visited, leaving me a message or calling card, I wasn’t sure which. I know I am watched- and watched over- every night by my silently flying friends.

Snowy owl, Boundary Bay, Vancouver, Canada

Snowy owl, Boundary Bay, Vancouver, Canada