Tag Archive: Owls

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




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 (www.paulbannick.com) , 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 http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-141.html#redfeather, which credits Beatrice Blackwood, 1929, “Tales of the Chippewa Indians,” Folk-Lore 40[4]:315-44.

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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