Category: Wildlife habitat

It’s the baby time of year- they’re starting to leave their nests and find their way in the world.  Sometimes mom and dad is there to help, but eventually, they gotta fly on their own.  None of this college graduate living at home with a mountain of student debt for them….


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I look like one of those people, but I’m not.  No, I don’t watch television.  There is too much else to do. But that “else” isn’t pursuit of the spiritual, the religious, the social. I do things with my beat up hands, with my land, with my horses. In my spare time, I either stay home or pack bags and go:  near or far, with a pass or a passport; drive, take the bus or train, or fly; stay in a tent or a motel or a hut.

I’m not a total luddite:  I will indulge in crazy animated movies once in awhile. I obviously use electronics, digital cameras, a computer, a smartphone, a tablet.


But a bald eagle tumbling through the air grabbing at the talons of a territory-invading hawk is a commercial free distraction. The dark eyes of a harbor seal that has followed my kayak home and hovers in the pool by the beach is a soulful farewell. A hummingbird that weighs less than a nickel defending a stand of bee balm from butterflies, bees, and birds entertains.  These moments are far more arresting than a conversation over chai tea in a carefully designed faux salvage cafe decor.

HummerBranchThis region’s legendary traffic is my excuse for not indulging in urban cultural events and going to dinner with friends.  My friends live three dozen miles away, south on a perpetually crowded freeway, or a thousand miles away.  My family, like many, is spread across the country. But travel isn’t really the barrier, because I do that a lot.  I just like wandering around by my lonesome, in the moment, in as natural an environment as I can find. dragonfly1

I paid my dues retrieving my mother’s blood spattered, broken glasses from the wreckage of her truck 30 years ago. Already supremely independent and restless, I’ve never again been that easy close to people after that little tragedy.  I wander afar, road trip, hike, and camp on my own, or stay home to do artwork and landscaping in the company of animals, most of them wild. In practice, I’m an absent, unrelaible friend, checking in sporadically with pictures and stories about travel and home. RedSnake

So I don’t watch television, attend retreats to become mindful and soulful, seek cultural events and stimulating conversation over gourmet meals. I sound awful.  But I’m not a hermit: I work with the public and give volunteer presentations and workshops whenever I’m asked. I’m friendly to every friendly person I meet. I care about the friends I don’t keep up with. I’m interested in other people’s stories. It’s just that when the day is done, I take my stories home, disconnect from humanity, and go where the wild things are.

And that’s okay.  The world has enough people- it doesn’t need me out there.

VultureOnSlashPileThe animal company I keep does need people, though.  They need us to plant more trees and shrubs, build more rock piles and slash piles, hoist up more nests until there is enough nature to build their own.  They need cleaner, cooler water and skies without flight hazards and light pollution. At my little sanctuary, they reward my efforts by mulitplying and bringing their offspring back each year. My visitors are a study in simplicity, with simple wants:  food, family, turf, home. This, I understand.


Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.
Rachel Carson


This was true in Rachel Carson’s United States after people annihilated bird populations with DDT and other pesticides meant to protect us from pests.  New Zealand’s birds have been silenced by another human behavior: bringing the world of pests with us when we travel.


Takahe on Kapiti Island. The North Island takahe went extinct.  The South Island takahe seen here was thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered.

New Zealand floated alone in the Pacific for 80+ million years, far away from Australia, Tonga, Fiji.  Like a person spending a lot of time alone, it developed some interesting features. In the beginning, there were only birds, and perhaps a bat species or two.  No mammals at all to scavenge nutritious eggs and snatch fledglings.  The birds didn’t need to go far, so flight fell by the wayside for some birds, and others are weak fliers.Giant moas grew to 8 feet tall at the shoulder; their only predator, the Haast’s eagle, weighed 30+ lbs.

And then it all changed 800 some years ago when the Maori arrived hungry, and accompanied by kiore, Polynesian rats. Then came stoats, cats, wasps, goats, deer, sheep, cows, dogs, red tailed oppossums, ship rats, Norway rats and so on.  Man is often called the worst pest because we hunt animals to extinction, burn down forests for pasture and farmland, and point skyward to justify our destruction.KiwiZoneSign

Today, we continue to bring pests, some too small to be seen.  On my recent trip to New Zealand, we were scrubbing and disinfecting shoes to prevent the spread of kauri dieback disease, a fungus. Then, we were picking through packs for plant material and small rodents before going to Kapiti Island sanctuaryKapiti-IslandWoodSign


Around the world, concern about vanishing nature has occurred in waves throughout history.  We’re at a sort of end time in some places like New Zealand, where it’s an all-out war on pests to keep what’s left alive.  Sanctuaries are established offshore or behind fences, and then pests are poisoned, shot, trapped, lured to their deaths with Judas animals. The Goat Musterer has removed 20,000+ feral goats for food use. There are still a lot to go.


It’s not a pretty approach, and intolerable to people with softer sensibilities living in sprawling countries like America.  We think there’s enough space, another way to do this. On the other side, some folks believe wiping out the indigenous flora, fauna (and sometimes people that were not considered to be such) is evidence of humans’ entitled dominion over the earth. On the other side, some believe we deserve Zika, Ebola, terrible influenzas.

I believe in balance.DangerTrapInside

In New Zealand, I found it strange to be in lush native bush with no birdsong. Protected sanctuaries immediately stand out for the melodic songs of tui and bellbirds. It’s taken years to bring them back, and constant vigilance to keep them that way, free of pests that overwhelm birds with no ability to adapt. People can live among the wild peacably:the Barrett family of Kapiti Island, holdouts who refused to sell their land for a sanctuary, are perfect examples of this.

When I came home to my postage stamp of a restoration project, rich with birdsong, bees, frogs, and butterflies, I realized we don’t have to take a bow and leave.  Sixteen years ago, I moved in to acres of invasive foreign grass on a horse property barren of life.  Sixteen years later, I come home to a wildlife sanctuary.  If we have courage, it can work.

ShortieRoots2The short-eared owls aren’t yet rare, but we still stand breathless waiting for them to fly moth-like as they hunt at sundown.  We listen for their raspy barks in flight, watch for them to land on a post, rootwad, or elderberry stem,  then their heads to wither us with the piercing owl stare.  I know they are reliable here at the Welts-Samish restoration area, overwintering before returning to northern breeding grounds.ShortieSunset

On a cold, sunny afternoon, we are all here chasing nature:  the duck hunters, the bird watchers, people taking kids for a walk, wildlife photographers, and me.

It dawns on me that nature used to chase us, and if we were chasing nature, it was just to get a meal.  Now, we chase what’s left of nature just for the experience.  Big game hunters spend tens of thousands of dollars on multi-day journeys to go on safari far away.  People fly to remote Churchill, Manitoba to view polar bears from the safety of lodges and snow buggies. Big Year birders look plain crazy to me, burning fossil fuels to tear around the world just to sight as many bird species as possible in a sort of manic stamp-collecting competition.

But I’m just as guilty of leaving a trail of carbon as I chase nature: flying to Costa Rica and driving from the Cloud Forest where the vanishing resplendent quetzal lives to the Osa Pensinsula to find the engandered Baird’s tapir.  I will be flying to Whitehorse in the Yukon to see the Northern Lights.  I’ve driven several times to Montana to hike and camp where grizzlies and bison roam. This year, I took three flights on my first trip to the barren and beautiful Canadian Arctic.


I’d rather walk out the back door and see nature, so I’m doing as much restoration as I can. A long-eared owl stopped by for a couple weeks in 2012. Shorties stop by my property  every year in the fall, but they never stay. This fall, one landed in my pasture to snatch up a rodent, and did fly-overs for about a week.  I was hopeful for a winter resident, but it eventually flew away.  The hoots of great horned owls and screeches of barn owls in our fields at night don’t bode well for the long-eared owls and shorties.


Long-eared owl at my house; attention posture

Highly nomadic and migratory, short-eared look for open grasslands where ground shelter is decent and rodent hunting is good.  Samish Flats makes good overwintering ground for a number of raptors even with duck hunters lurking in blinds around the area.

I’ll keep working on my habitat so I don’t have to wander far to see owls.  I’ll not put up farm lights that pollute the night sky with glare and make it impossible to see blood moons and northern lights on the rare occasions we see them. But I’ll still have to get on a plane to visit polar bears and tapirs, and will have to road trip to see bison and grizzlies, long gone from most Western landscapes. Like everyone else in this changing world, I will chase nature.


My fuzzy picture of the September 27 blood moon, from my pasture




In the Pacific Northwest, fall brings windstorms and rain, sometimes in torrents.  If the jet stream from Asia lines up just right and picks up moisture from typhoons or other sources, an “atmospheric river” forms; meterologists describe it as a “firehose” when the mountains stall the front and  rain dumps continuously.  We’ve experienced two of these, one with a serious windstorm. Since resulting flooding occurred back-to-back, I’ll call it “round one”.

Flooded road and trooper of a fir tree

Flooded road and trooper of a fir tree

We survived round one despite crumbling dikes that bulged in seams indicating seeping from the river to the backslope. We survived the windstorm, too, with a short power outage and a few trees affected by 60-mph windgusts that came from an different direction than usual. I found front porch railings popped and discovered at morning light that the 30 foot tall Alaska weeping cedar had begun to tip over onto a porch post, leaving a rut where the roots were lifting out of the ground on one side. I will definitely be doing some work to help that tree build new roots and to beef up any barrier to keep it from tipping onto the house!

Dikes look dry, but seeping is occurring at the base of the slope

Dikes look dry, but seeping is occurring at the base of the slop


Windgusts of 60 mph (95 km/h) from an unusual direction snapped this tree and tipped the top onto a neighbor’s roof. I usually evacuate before large floods, but with a horse suffering from deteriorating ligaments, a walk up the hill or trailer ride could exacerbate the problem, and will only happen if needed.

My reaction to these events is tempered by the sober realization that we all  signed up for this.  It’s not just that I moved to this place.  It’s that we altered this place to make it more hazardous during weather events.  We logged upstream and put in buildings and roads that shed more water into the rivers during storms. Tree canopies no longer slow the procession of rain to ground. We channelized the river, making it run faster and higher during floods.  We build “farmer engineered mountains of mud”: dikes that don’t conform to Army Corps standards, much less aspire to be the complex flood control of the Netherlands.  This was the dream of Dr. Henry Smith when he first saw the Snohomish River system:  a new Holland.  We are no Holland, but instead a patchwork of both sturdy and crumbling dikes holding water back from homes and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure: jet fuel conveyance pipelines, massive water mains, high voltage power lines, communications cables sharing pole space with local utilities, commuter roads, and bridges.  We are a train wreck waiting to happen, a New Orleans or New Jersey waiting for the Big One.  And that other Big One- a massive earthquake expected at some time in our region- could liquefy our jello-esque dikes and send a tsunami 9 miles upstream.

Pulling a dock up before the floods take it away

Pulling a dock up before the floods take it away

So why do people live in places like this?  People live with natural hazards throughout our region because of the beauty, the diversity of activities, jobs, and the economy.  It’s a case of picking your poison:  windstorms, ice storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, volcanoes, coastal and river flooding, even drought.  Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms are rare events that pale in comparison to the intermittent massive weather and geological events that can whack us all.

People are flocking to this region:  my county is expected to absorb 200,000 more people in the next 20 years.  We will have to be a lot more proactive, get a lot more clever, and spend a lot more money to make this immigration wave work in an area that wants to blow up or just crumble into the sea.  For those of us who are already here, we’ll have to keep whistling past the graveyard and hoping for the best.



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Calm river in early fall

Calm river in early fall

Autumn is a season of giving and a prelude to the fear winter brings.  Gentle storms wash loosen leaves from trees, to be gathered in piles for mulching summer-parched plants.  Fruits, berries, and seeds that escape the beaks of birds drop to the soil to become next year’s volunteers. Pumpkins and squash wither in the chill and spill meat and seeds when mice make holes in their softened husks. Throughout my little landscape, plants bed themselves down with needles and leaves that will cushion them when rains pound and nourish their growing roots as they sleep.

Rainbows Mean Rain

Rainbows Mean Rain

Some rain has fallen, an antidote to a terrible, dry summer with historic stretches of heat and skies smudged with wildfire ash. The rivers ran low and hot, choking fish and shutting down fishing. Berries mummified on branches and canes.  If we had lived in a time before grocery stores, we would worry

about the coming winter.

Calm river below smoky skies

Summer’s smoky skies- there are mountains behind that smog

After a couple rainstorms, plants bloom again as if spring has arrived.  Grass springs back to life in the emerald green of first warmth even as the days become shorter and colder. The harvest moon looms large over the damp pasture at night as young coyotes steal under fences, hunting rabbits and voles.

Hey wait! It's fall, not blooming time!

Hey wait! It’s fall, not blooming time!

A late visitor- red admiral butterfly visiting a coneflower

A late visitor- red admiral butterfly visiting a coneflower

The barn swallows left after Labor Day, tiny agile pilots navigating the incredible journey to Central America.  Now snow geese are back from the opposite direction in the Arctic, their barking unmistakable on a foggy morning when they can’t be seen flying overhead.  A Stellars jay has returned after the summer, with its straggling imitation of a red-tailed hawk that impresses no bird foraging in the yard. A surprise visitor appears one sunny afternoon- a red admiral butterfly apparently affixed  to a coneflower bloom.  It seems late for this butterfly, but with an expanding crop of nettle to lay eggs on, it may be the product of multiple hatches this year.

Open-faced dahlias continue feeding bees

Open-faced dahlias continue feeding bees

Pacific chorus frogs croak from trees and shrubs on damp days.  There aren’t many frog-friendly days, what with the strong El Nino that is creating havoc elsewhere.  Here, we are still too dry.  My cedars are flagging, and a noble fir sacrifices needles on some branches that jump out visually when they turn yellow. Fall is usually a good time to plant trees and shrubs potted and tended over the summer, but this year, my shovel turns up dust a foot deep.

As I put my landscape to bed, clean gutters, and spread gravel in paddocks, I wonder what will be left on the other side of winter.  Will it be our turn for historic, destructive storms like the rest of the nation experienced this year?  Will my horse with his decaying ligaments still be alive?  Will the roof last, or will more windstorms peel off enough shingles to warrant an emergency repair? Will the river swell and breach the dikes with typhoon moisture from Japan, swept in on tropical winds from Hawaii? Or maybe we’ll sit parched all winter, with no snow for skiing this winter, or next summer’s river flows.

I’m always dubious about autumn- the gifts it presents are perhaps an apology for what comes next.  I’m sure people from time immemorial have looked askance at autumn, unsure of what the next months would bring. For thousands of years, people must have hoped for somewhere else to be the bullseye when the monster winter storm or evil deep freeze set in. They must have flipped a coin or a chunk of bone or a point carved of rock, anything to ward off the worst of winter while they still had a chance.  We’ll see.  We’ll see what’s left next spring.

Autumn Sunrise

Autumn Sunrise

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Last season, it was all about the catching; this year it's all about the fishing

Last pink salmon season, it was all about the catching; this year it’s all about the fishing. But no famine will occur here: a buddy goes to Safeway grocery store to fill his smoker when he can’t catch enough wild fish.

In the Puget Sound region, we march slowly toward the lifestyle depicted in the science-fiction comedy Wall-E; Amazon will send a drone to your door soon so that your delivery arrives in an hour.  We deliver groceries and restaurant food, not just pizza.  Even middle class families have cleaning services.

With this much free time and choice, we can choose what shapes us, and ignore the land.  Oh sure, Western Washington has been cut off by major flooding, so that no supplies can enter the state by rail or road.  We’re prone to major earthquakes, and now overdue for a whopper that could bring us to our knees and change our region for decades.  We’re surrounded by volcanoes that could- and have- transformed in seconds from ethereal visions of white to exploding mountains of smoke and ash unleashing torrents of glacial meltwater and mud.

But these events don’t happen every year, so we forget that the land could put a stranglehold on our lives.  We survive power outages after windstorms, ice storms, and flooding. After Mt. St. Helens blew up, we buried the dead, built a visitor’s center at a new National Monument, and her ash became gift shop curios. Groceries always show up, and we carry on. We certainly need no taboos to avoid cannibalism in times of famine- most of us need diets instead.

Life is not this easy on Baffin Island, even now that people don’t rely on hunting to survive.  When we arrived in late July 2015, the jet stream that trapped historically hot weather over southern Canada and the U.S. held a cold front at its back resulting from a record cold “blob” in the Atlantic.  In Iqaluit and Pangnirtung, pack ice still cluttered the harbors, preventing the Sealift from delivering food and supplies.  Fuel tankers couldn’t reach remote communities; even those with reserve tanks were reportedly running low on fuel.

By the time we left Auyuittuq National Park, the Canadian government sent an ice breaker on emergency orders to make a path for a fuel tanker to reach Pang.  The tanker was there, but in a week, according to a government project manager, they have not been able to pump a liter of fuel.  Floating ice prevents a boat from extending a fuel hose to connect to valves on shore, and eventually, shears the cable to the anchor.  The freighter is under power instead of adrift as they scramble to get technical divers flown in.

Parks Canada Ranger Station, Pangnirtung, NU

Parks Canada Ranger Station, Pangnirtung, NU

The land still controls lives here but the people are not as bound to the land as before, when they depended completely on the bounty of the land to survive.  That bounty conferred great health on a durable and resilient people when it could be harvested, but there were times that food eluded people, when Nuliajuk, the temperamental goddess-like woman under the sea, kept sea mammals away from hunters.  The wonderful Inuit writer Rachel  A. Quitsualik says, “Inuit were concerned with whatever gave them a practical edge, practicing a humanistic, even somewhat scientific, observation of nature. Their preoccupation was mastery, not propitiation, of their environment.” Read more at

At least Pang has reserve fuel storage tanks

At least Pang has reserve fuel storage tanks

A tanker of fuel in Pangnirtung Fiord, skirting ice

A tanker of fuel in Pangnirtung Fiord, skirting ice


Although we experienced several rainy days on our trip to Baffin Island, this area is considered to be “in or near” the polar desert biome.  Like many deserts, where water flows there is life:  here, in the marine waters and fiords are  seals, whales, polar bears, walruses, and arctic char.  These animals are dwindling as everywhere due to the power of the rifle, and sometimes, the snowmachine.  Because the Inuit traditionally depended on this life for sustenance, dwindling populations may someday spell the end of selling some products commercially in order to sustain the Inuit people.  For now, they are here, and if you live outside the United States, you may bring home a sealskin bag, or sealskin wallet.  Because I live in the United States, I brought home a carving and a weaving of seals. You can get arctic char at Pangnirtung Fisheries to ship home, although I can’t imagine it is as good shipped as it is fresh.

People’s tastes change, though, and they have here, where there is less and less reliance on the bounty of the land.  From “the South”, they ship Pepsi, and when it doesn’t arrive because ice chokes harbors, it increases in price to $9 Cnd per can. I see cases arriving on the plane with people visiting from accessible communities.

ClammingLowTide I also see women out clamming at low tide when I hike the Pang headland, and we see seal hunters when we take a boat ride out to the floe ice by Cumberland Sound.  They are patiently working to gather a food source that is probably far healthier than most of the food on the stranded Sealink.


It may be that the Inuit no longer need a shaman to appease Nuiliajuk, but instead, the Canadian government to bring an ice breaker or a cargo plane full of food.  What then happens to their diet, to their profound observational skills, to their rich oral history, stories passed down by the elders to help the young navigate life and the land? Projects like North of 60 and foundations like Students on Ice seek to preserve stories and traditions of the Arctic, and pass them on to the next generations. But can these efforts preserve the strengths, intuition, intellect, and skills that helped the Inuit survive without the need to work with the land?

I would never wish to consign people to a harsh condition when the rest of us have other options. However, I hope the Inuit can find a way to carry forth into their future the strengths and skills that sustained them when their land shaped the living, rather than abandon qualities most of us will never know to shape the land to their will.


In a year where I’m grabbing for the steering wheel and brake pedal as the driverless car careens down a ravine, the patterns of nature go on as usual.  For the second year, a Bewicks wren has built a nest in a compartment under the gooseneck of the horse trailer.  I can see little bits of grass inside the entry, and hear the hatchlings fruitlessly singing at me to bring them a spider, a moth, anything.

The horse trailer may as well be a home for birds.  This year I know why Tigger has been breaking the top rail of his fence, piling up bedding against a wall, lagging behind me on the way to the barn once in awhile.  The vet ultrasounds his fetlocks and lo, he has an old suspensory ligament injury, or perhaps chronic degradation of the ligament, she can’t tell which.  He’s been perching on fencing and piling up material to perch his butt and get weight off his back feet.

I get the answer to catastrophic versus chronic a month later, when I come home from a three-day conference and find a swelling below his hock that signals trouble.  A new ultrasound shows torn ligament and a fragment of bone pulled away. It is the end of his riding life, and signals time to make a decision.  Not a decision to do surgery or stem cell injections, which are options, but excessive: he’s 17, abnormally tall and broad for his breed.  The most humane decision is to let him go gentle into that good night.  It is for people to rage against the dying light, foolishly perhaps, but not for me to kill my horse on the ground after he embarks on one last hurrah and rips the ligaments to shreds.

But this isn’t coming easily, because there is work to do and a companion to find for my other horse. I work on insurance to board a horse, start to repair that top rail and consider the trouble an average horse might find in my barn.  My horses are ridiculously polite about fencing and wood and the occasional rough edge, but I know that a new horse may test those fences and find those edges.  Finding a companion proves to be a saga, too, reminding me of a friend’s one-time journey through the deceit of She’s calm, I’m told, and then the mare slams the door of her stall with a foot as I pass by.  There goes my kneecap, I think.  He has no bad habits, I hear, but then I find his stall chewed to splinters.

The vet suggests a companion animal. An article about Pharoah, first winner of the Triple Crown in 37 years, talks about his companion gelding.  For racehorses too dominant for another horse, there are goats and donkeys and even a pig, Charlie. But what if I get the goat or the donkey, neither of which I want, and Lark doesn’t like it?

And I leave for the Arctic on some wayward crazy journey (read: rage against the dying light or something to that effect), so changing up is a challenge before I leave. With the vet’s blessing, we labor on, with Tigger in a makeshift miniature paddock so Lark can live normally.  Larkey gets exercised under saddle, Tigger gets daily walks and hand grazing and I panic when he does anything sudden.  It’s summer, so I’ve taken to hand-grazing while I sit in a lawn chair with a camera and watch the world go by.

This is a rare treat for me, after years of planting and building and remodeling, and I see things that likely happen daily witnessed only by Tigger and Lark.  I hear the distinct sound of an Anna’s hummingbird and finally spy a female on a dead elderberry twig.  AnnasFemale1She begins tilting her head and then suddenly, a male lands on the branch and assumes a sort of begging posture.  This gets the “heck no” response from her, and she flies up and dive bombs him.  He leaves. There are many hummers this year, on every plant put in the ground for them, and draining the feeders.PrettyPlease



Both bald eagles appear today to sit on the raptor-friendly power pole by the river to fish.  I haven’t been able to see the nest since leaves erupted on the huge cottonwood, but at one point my neighbor spied a white head in the nest.  Maybe there are young and they are both out hunting.  They fly in low over the horses as they graze, then lift up to the top of the pole.  I don’t have a camera then, and to get one, I have to tuck Tigger in Lark’s pen so he doesn’t run.  As I return, the visibly smaller eagle is heading back toward the nest, right over my head.

The remaining eagle sits watchful under bluebird skies, then suddenly starts calling.  He tilts his head, then out of nowhere comes a hawk of some kind (I think).  The hawk sails toward him, talons extended, and he throws his wings up like a powerful magic cape, screaming as he does.  The hawk lifts away, and the eagle arches in tense anger before relaxing again into his watchful pose.

EaglePowerPole EagleHawk1EagleHawk2There are always different filters to see with, and gifts to find along every path. I feel indecisive and uncertain about the choice to keep Tigger alive until I come home, but I am at peace with his situation. Two days after he was diagnosed, the Nepal earthquake hit, killing and rendering homeless many people who have never experienced a fraction of the health care my horse has received.  There are children starving in refugee camps, people trembling at every rumble, disease spreading through crowded camps.  There are people buried under the rubble of homes never meant to withstand shaking.

Yes, I raised this horse from a weanling.  Yes, he is sensible and calm, precious and dog-like.  But he has enjoyed more sustenance, attention, and care than many people, and it is good enough.  He will teach me to sit peacefully and see little things until he goes gentle into the good night.  And the trailer will sit singing until it’s time for his last journey.

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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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ChristmasSwans9I walked out to see if the swans were still there. Well over 100 trumpeter swans arrived in the district the night before Christmas, even landing in the fields behind my house.  Their chattering woke me up at 3 a.m., so close that I opened the window to check whether I was dreaming their voices. I walked to see them when the sun rose over the cold valley.  That was days ago, and despite the chilly Fraser River winds that turned their lake to ice, they returned every night.  The weather then changed, a Pacific storm ushering out the arctic air, and I could no longer hear them from the barn.

The night was still warm with the visiting tropical storm, which pelted mountain snow with rain sending a surge of water downriver to flood the land.  The unsettling warm winds rush toward the mountains, sliced by powerline wires and hissing and seething as they pass.  There is moon almost full shining serene somewhere above the racing shreds of clouds.

The swans were there.  The wind drowned out their murmurs from the back door of my barn, but I could hear them as I walked the road around my neighbor’s run-down farm and approached the fence by old District 6.

I decided the swans were a Christmas gift to me.  These elegant, softly feathered birds with their inky black faces came at some godly behest to remind me that soon I will travel far north, as northerly as their summer breeding grounds. I will follow them home, to a place with fewer people and buildings and roads than this place.

I once sat on a frozen bay along massive Lake Superior, gazing at the Northern lights shimmering across the sky. I sat huddled in a big ugly snowsuit, sorel boots, wool hat, and lined wool mittens.  I was as lonely and bent toward the future as any teenager stranded in a foreign and isolated place. I wanted to be far away from trailers, cabins and shacks, the smell of propane heaters in ice fishing huts, and the choking fumes of diesel, gas and oil that ran chainsaws, logging skidders and snowmobiles. I wanted to run from a strange world of drunkenness and teen pregnancy and domestic violence punctuated seasonally by the puzzled eyes of well-appointed city tourists seeking natural beauty.

If I could dissolve into light, I imagined, I could rise to the sky like the Northern lights and catch a ride on stratospheric winds to some faraway place where my mind’s eye could already see sunlight and hear laughing, chatter, music.

Now I think about paying to travel to the Northern lights, take two planes to Yellowknife and sit quietly watching the sky, wanting the stratospheric winds to blow the loud, cluttered and bloated world far away.  I want to sit huddled in a snowsuit and hide under a kaleidoscope of light, maybe stay there forever. This year I will pay to walk a long trail in the Arctic Circle.  I will get there on a journey resembling travel in the 1940’s, not the new millennium:  one plane that leads to another followed by a long boat trip on almost frozen waters to be left ashore on a barren coast.  This place is not unpopulated with visitors, but not popular.  I will pay to find a place as lonely as the place I fled decades ago.

Today, I have swans.  A gift of swans, a valley resplendent with swans. Silky white long-necked birds.  Birds so large that gaining flight requires running on water with large black webbed feet while pumping long wings. They rest and preen, reaching remote itchy spots by retracting, stretching, and curling their necks to the tune of an invisible waltz, covering the water with snowy down.  Then some swan gives the call to fly, and the staccato sound of feet slapping and wings pumping shoots across the water.

The swan behind is still running on the water as it gains flight.

The swan behind is still running on the water as it gains flight.

Today, I have swans.  For now. I say I won’t walk out every night to see them, but then the laughing moon smiles into my bedroom, and I open my window to let gentle honking and murmuring drift into the house.  I put on a long coat over bathrobe and leggings, shoes over silly pink-striped socks, and walk the two miles to see the swans.  The moon goes dim as valley fog rolls through, so I can’t see them when I arrive, but I hear them, talking amongst themselves, always murmuring, ruffling and preening.

They will fly to the Arctic after the long winter night and the northern lights are gone there, and they may never return to my neighborhood again.  But they are here, a gift, for now.

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