Tag Archive: wildlife habitat

The weather said, “Go winter camping!” with clear days and the night sky lit up with a fullish moon.  Camping below Mt. Rainier, or high on Artist Point, with coral sunset bathing the mountains followed by the radiant moon and a billion stars.  Bundled in wool and fleece and down in unearthly quiet and silvery cold air sounded like peace.FrostyTreeThreeFingers

But it’s pretty here, too, out in the boondocks of the Puget Sound area.  If I left, my neighbors would have been slogging warm water for the horses because the cold got to my tanks, faucets and hoses before I did.  I never really finished cleaning up after the last windstorm, and another system is coming in with wind and rain this week.


Sun rising through freezing fog and illuminating the pasture

It’s also been a long year, with ups and downs, travel and learning and people and change.  We are in a truly crazy and endless election season. Terrorism rages at home and abroad. Home alone for four days, with a break to eat Thanksgiving dinner with friends, started to sound pretty good.  Anyway, those sunny mountains would be trampled by people in droves out for fun and pretty pictures on a long holiday weekend. Good for all of them- enjoy, people!


Trumpeter swans flying at sunset

Oh, and there’s a new kids’ animation movie out- beautiful graphics with doe-eyed creatures and a neatly packaged coming of age story.  “Never growing up” doesn’t have to mean arrested adolescence; rather, it can be the crazy dreams and imagined adventures of childhood. As someone stuck at age 10, with a collection of animal puppets and kids’ adventure books, I was sold.

So I stayed home, doing my usual weird routine of cooking a turkey after spending Thanksgiving with friends- just for the leftovers, mind you.  Filling the house with the scent of savory soup and freshly baked bread the next day. Raking up the last leaves, and wandering out with a camera when the light and animals cooperated.  A quiet, kinda sustainable holiday.  A break.


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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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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Orange trumpet honeysuckle, a native with flower length better suited to hummingbirds than some cultivars

Orange trumpet honeysuckle, a native with flower length better suited to hummingbirds than some cultivars

I was going to quit this year, finally, and just maintain areas that  turned into crazy  jungles.  Just prune and weed and divide occasionally, do something else with my time in the winter and spring.

But the orange honeysuckle burst into bloom for the first time in a decade and the Anna’s hummingbirds drink from every flower as it matures from yellow to deep orange.  And veritable flocks of Western swallowtail butterflies hang adoringly off the mock orange flowers. Red Admiral butterflies showed up for the first time to lay eggs on the stinging nettle lurking where I can’t get at it, a painted lady butterfly made a first appearance for strawberry flowers, and mourning cloaks basked on the power line and the lawn for over a month. A Lorquin’s admiral defends Now in June, bees work globe mallow flowers, wild lilac, and nodding onion.  Flocks of cedar waxwings move from the salmonberry to the twinberry and await the ripening of serviceberry and Oregon grape berries. There are pairs of nesting black-headed grosbeaks, Western tanagers, and Bullock’s orioles, none of which I’ve seen before.  Nests are everywhere, with babies crying to be fed. Scent follows me everywhere as I walk past the woodland garden, the sun garden, hedgerows, fruit trees, borders.

None of this rich world was here when I arrived fourteen years ago.  I made it happen- and I am not even a gardener.

Male Anna's hummingbird, staking a claim.

Male Anna’s hummingbird, staking a claim.

The planting addiction  started after I bought the house with  acreage that had been mowed and mowed again, beaten into submission by the motor and the blade.  The neighbors said they could hear Keith mowing all the time, maybe to get away from his wife.  The mower had a beer can holder, and the crushed aluminum victims lay in the thousands in the barn, testament to an ugly stint in Vietnam and an uglier marriage.  I don’t know who did the mowing after Keith shot a friend during a hot tub party and went to jail for awhile. Mary landscaped around the house, and though reputed to be mean and manipulative, festooned the greenery with kitschy gnomes and little girls in dresses and signs that said, “Martha Stewart doesn’t live here.”

The mowing began after massive clearing that took place some 70 years ago, long after Dr. Henry Smith made his way up the Snohomish River and decided it would be tamed to create a new Holland.  While the river has never agreed to this, and occasionally wipes out everything man puts in its way, the land has changed forever with diking and drainage.

The only survivor on my property is a bigleaf maple, now huge in girth,   left as a property boundary marker as was the practice throughout the river valley.  This tree would have stood as cedar, spruce, willow, crabapple, and maple were felled in the swamps around it, as sediment was dredged to make farmer-engineered dikes that cut off the land from water and nutrients, as a river once seasonally choked with salmon was raked to fill canneries as if there were no tomorrow.  The old maple leafs out every year and bears seed still, but the number of giant limbs dropping signals impending demise.  I wonder if that tree will breathe a sigh of relief to go to eternal sleep and see no more destruction of the world into which it sprouted.

The maple has more company of compatriot plants it once stood beside, along with some fresh faces that better survive the drained condition.  When I moved here, it became immediately obvious that I didn’t need so much reed canarygrass, a terrible horse forage due to its fibrous nature and alkaloid content. I needed wind and sun break.  Western Washington is not a chronic sheet of drizzle, as people think, but a Mediterranean climate that dries during the summer.  Afternoon marine thermals are common in the summer.  In the fall and spring, windstorms can brew as low pressure fronts arrive.  All this wind comes pretty much straight at my property from Fobes Hill.  The hill returns the favor by deflecting weather, but that means my ground is drier as a result. The afternoon sun would bake my horses and heat up the barn so that bringing them inside just meant they would sweat instead of burn.

So my neighbor, the grant administrator for the Snohomish Conservation District, encouraged me to check out their annual bareroot plant sale.  Since then, I have spent an average of $300/year on plants that cost $1 apiece, and frequently come home with sale plants or needy homeless plants.  I was told to plant dense, that half the plants would die.  I was told to bring in better soil for planting, to use compost and mulch.

Twinberry is a twining shrub with flowers for hummingbirds and berries that waxwings love

Twinberry is a twining shrub with flowers for hummingbirds and berries that waxwings love

Mock orange, more frequent in Eastern Washington, with nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds- and citrus scent for people!

Mock orange, more frequent in Eastern Washington, with nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds- and citrus scent for people!

And then most of the plants decided life was worth living. They cheerfully suckered, layered their branches as they marched across the land, sent out runners, produced berries and seeds for birds to poop out and start new plants elsewhere.  It is a sad day when you’re relieved the pesky beaver has wandered into the yard and nabbed a shore pine you never should have planted in that location.  Equally sad is the day you uncover dead trees girdled by voles and thank the voles for being such good owl snacks and saving you from your over-planting along the way.

There are always new areas to plant, however, and the birds and butterflies egg me on.  Fencing in this area, with our high water table, either rots or rusts;as farmers in medieval England discovered,  hedgerows planted along fencing create the same animal barriers with less maintenance, and they provide wildlife benefit.  And the earthen dike needs more root mass and fewer Himalayan blackberries, so there is always space there.

The real truth of the matter is that wearing out gloves, boots and jeans whether it’s sunny or raining has not just attracted wildlife, fostered life and protected water quality: it’s also kept me sane.  I work with the public in an activist West Coast urban center known for its addiction to process, and sometimes want to run screaming from the complexity of the human race.  And then I come home, dig in the dirt, plant the next phase of jungle, and watch the world come alive in the spring with animals that are happy simply with a food source, shelter and a safe place to start a family.  It’s a good balance for me.

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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