October 19, 2008 The Owl and the Subaru
We heard through the birding grapevine–on a Pacific Northwest internet message board named “Tweeters”–that on 27 September skilled birders Khanh Tran and Tom Mansfield had spotted an unusual owl in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The Northern Hawk Owl is normally found farther north, in the boreal forests–think scraggly spruces in endless bogs–across Canada, Alaska, and Russia. Karen and I had seen one of these owls some half-a-decade previously in Washington, but our views had been fleeting and distant. This one had been seen in the Okanogan National Forest, specifically in the Meadows Campground near Hart’s Pass, which is located above the stunning Methow Valley of Eastern Washington–in my opinion the most beautiful inhabited mountain valley in the entire state. It reminds me of the best of Montana, and that’s saying a great deal.
We had camped among the wildflowers and dark spruces of the Meadows Campground twice previously, but several years ago the entire campground was incinerated by the huge Needle Creek Fire, which left over 99% of the spruces and firs as standing skeletons. The U.S. Forest Service removed many of the dead trees, so now the campground has safe, open areas dotted with short stumps where visitors can camp, and the entire campground is surrounded by tens of thousands of standing dead trees. It is eerie in the moonlight–just the place to hear the haunting call of an owl or a pack of wolves.
To get to Hart’s Pass and the Methow Valley, it is a 5 1/2 hour journey from our Bremerton apartment. We started at 4:30 a.m., taking the ferry to Seattle, then driving north on I-5, then east on WA Highway 20, which is a stunning, but seasonal route through the Cascades. The first heavy snow of the season will close the road until springtime. But not to worry this weekend, which was forecast to have two days of late autumn sunshine, to be followed by snow after we left on Sunday night. The Methow Valley was beautiful with brilliant yellow Black Cottonwoods contrasting with hazy blue peaks in the distance. From there, we climbed the Hart’s Pass Road into the mountains. This road is accessible to cars, but there is a half-mile stretch where the road is one lane wide, winding around blind curves with a 2,000 foot cliff on the outside of the curve and cliffs rising high on the inside of the curves. Actually, the road had been originally blasted from solid cliffs with dynamite. If you don’t like heights, this is not the place to be, especially if you meet a car coming around a blind curve and have to back up your vehicle around a curve to a safe place–which tends to be a wide place in the road a foot away from the cliff on what looks like soft soil. Did I mention that there are no guard rails whatsoever?
As we approached 6,200 foot Hart’s Pass, we kept our eyes open for a Spruce Grouse or the Northern Hawk Owl, but found neither. Most of the vehicles we passed were pickups or SUVs with orange-clad men inside; it is, after all, hunting season up here in God’s country and the hunters are also out enjoying what may be the last great autumn weekend of the year. At Hart’s Pass we turned toward Meadows Campground, a mile up the mountain at this point. We soon found ourselves behind two creeping Subaru SUVs, and knew that we had found the birders hoping to see the owl. We joined the chain as vehicle number three, and began inspecting every bird-shaped lump high in the dead spruces. Then we pulled into Meadows Campground and almost immediately spotted the owl. It was about noon at this point, and for the next hour-and-a-half or so we watched the owl flying around the area, zooming down to terrify a small flock of Gray Jays, then flying up to rest atop a dead spruce, bright yellow eyes alert and head turning around to view its domain. It didn’t seem bothered by the watchers, and had been the star attraction here for several weekends in a row. We watched the owl flying around, then it flew down to the ground and may have snagged a mouse, because it flew in a beeline away from the campground. This was at about 2:00 p.m.
Meanwhile, more Subarus arrived, with birders eagerly anticipating seeing the owl. We told them we had seen it just a few minutes ago, but it had flown off. The patient birders hung around for several hours, their Subarus scattered along the campground road. But the owl did not appear as the minutes stretched into hours. Subarus crawled down the road to Hart’s Pass to see what else could be found. Some birders were thrilled to see a flock of about 100 Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, a bird of high and wild expanses, near Slate Peak. Someone heard a Northern Pygmy Owl along the road, but didn’t see it. Karen and I drove to Slate Peak, about four miles away, to see what we could find. Slate Peak has a fire lookout tower, and the peak itself has an unusual look because it was scalped back in the 1950s to create a Distant Early Warning radar installation for detecting incoming Soviet bombers. Fortunately the nuclear bombers never came, and the fire lookout is now a lonely sentinel that has lost its original mission. But the Alpine Larches were brilliant gold against the blue shadows of the mountainsides and it was a gorgeous afternoon. We chatted with a determined woman who used a walker to trudge up part of the way to the lookout tower.
When we returned to the campground at 5:30 p.m., two Subarus remained, keeping lonely vigil along the darkening roads. Then we were the only ones left. We had set up camp in the Meadows Campground earlier, and were prepared for a long night. But then at 6:00 p.m. in the twilight, the Northern Hawk Owl flew back into the campground! It stayed for several minutes atop one tree, then another, then flew off toward a ridge in the distance. When an owl appears in the forest, and no Subarus are there to see it, does it really exist?
The night was cold and breezy. We retired into our winter sleeping bags at 7:00 p.m., read for fifteen minutes, then fell asleep, wearing long underwear, an extra layer of fleece, heavy socks, and wool hats. With all that, we stayed toasty for thirteen hours in the tent, awakening from dreams at 8:00 a.m. and stepping outside to heavy frost on the tent and on the car (it had gotten down to about 25 degrees F overnight). Shortly thereafter, the first Subaru of the day arrived even before I had made my coffee. The Subaru birders had stayed down in the Methow Valley at the Mazama Inn and were eager to see the owl this morning. Alas, it was not to be. We stood around chatting in small groups and watching the surrounding trees for hours, but no bird came. Actually, there were birds that came begging, but they were Gray Jays and a Raven hoping for a handout. Several of us obliged, despite the entreaties on Tweeters recently about how human food is not good for the birds. But there is an undeniable delight in having a Gray Jay fly in and alight for an instant on your fingers to grab a piece of bread.
As the day went on, the number of Subarus diminished and one Toyota SUV arrived. Meanwhile, we decided to go for a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail as it heads south toward Grasshopper Pass. It was cold and the trail was icy in places, but the early afternoon was beautiful for our two mile hike. We saw several Pikas gathering food and sitting atop their lookout rocks, loudly squeaking claim to their territories. The Pika is a small rabbit-relative of timberline talus slopes that gathers a haystack of drying wildflowers for the winter. We also saw a Clark’s Nutcracker probing a Whitebark Pine in hopes of getting a tasty pine nut. Several Mountain Chickadees foraged in the conifers along the trail. Many of the Alpine Larches were at their peak of color, but enough golden needles had fallen that we knew this would be the last fine weekend of the fall. This parking lot was filled with pickups, SUVs, and a minivan, with not a Subaru in sight. There were hikers and hunters and trail-runners, and even a foursome of miners with hand tools and headlamps who headed upslope to do some probing in the old Brown Bear Mine.
We drove back down to the campground at 3:00 p.m., and all the Subarus were gone, apparently with no Sunday sightings of the great bird. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. Now, I’ve mentioned Subarus a number of times, and I didn’t make any of it up. On Saturday, six carloads of birders arrived, other than us, and all six cars were Subarus. It should be named the official car brand of birders. Or at least birders from the Seattle area. We downscale birders from the hinterlands drive an all-wheel-drive Aztek (which, by the way, has been a terrific birding and backpacking vehicle; but alas, it is no longer made).
We then headed down the mountain; little did we know there were going to be two more birdy incidents for us. I saw a small bird fly rapidly across the road that looked different from the other birds this weekend. When I raised my binoculars, it looked back with a flat face and yellow eyes. It was a Northern Pygmy Owl. The first we had ever seen! We watched it fly between several perches before it disappeared into the distance. Unfortunately, it was too far away for a photograph, but I did record it briefly on video. Then a flock of two dozen Gray-crowned Rosy Finches flew in. I grabbed my camera and long lens, then headed up the steep hillside to spend a bit of quality time with the birds. It turned out to be indeed a great experience, with some resulting really good close-up photographs. A fitting end to a fine weekend. And a seasonal goodbye to autumn in the mountains.
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Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.