WINTER PREDATORS OF THE SAMISH FLATS

Short-eared Owls and other predatory birds were the focus of my photography on a winter day in the Samish Flats area of northern Puget Sound in Washington State.

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owl taking a close look at the photographer

The deltas and estuaries of Puget Sound are not a good place to be a mouse in winter. On a recent trip to the Samish Flats, located on the northern shores of Puget Sound, we observed hundreds of avian predators, including Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Short-eared Owls, and a single Northern Shrike.

We drove through the Skagit Flats and Samish Flats for an entire winter afternoon, enjoying the sight of over a thousand Snow Geese and hundreds of Trumpeter Swans: both cheery white against the muddy farm fields. There were also a lot of ducks, including Northern Pintails and both American Wigeons and fifteen Eurasian Wigeons.

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk up close and personal

What we really wanted to see were Short-eared Owls, and we had heard that a great spot to see them was on Department of Fish & Wildlife land known to birders as the West 90. We arrived at about 3:00 p.m., and hiked out to a location where people had recently seen the owls.

We quickly spotted some owls, then spent the next two hours observing and photographing the owls as they hunted the fields, sometimes encountering and skirmishing with the Northern Harriers who hunt in much the same way. It was thrilling!

Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish Flats

Samish_Flats-69-2

Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls in flight while hunting, reminding us of butterflies with their erratic flight patterns over the fields

Short-eared Owls fly erratically, quickly changing course to drop on a vole; the flight reminds me somehow of a huge butterfly. Like many owls, they are certainly wary of humans, but we were able to get reasonably close to them without causing a panic attack. I think they view us as less of a threat than Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls.

It was a cloudy day for photography, but I often find that the pale winter sky on a cloudy day makes a wonderful background for my bird photographs.

As the afternoon wore on, twilight approached and it became too dark for exposures of moving birds. We left the owls to their hunting, and came away thrilled with the experience.

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish Flats

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls will perch on shrubs between flights

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget Sound

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget SoundA young Northern Shrike was a surprise visitor to the West 90; shrikes are known as “butcher birds” for their habit of impaling mice on thorns–storing them for later use. We have observed that behavior along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, where the shrikes used hawthorn trees as their gruesome storage facility.

Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier Skirmishing in Samish FlatsSometimes the Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers–who appear to occupy a similar ecological niche in winter–don’t play nice

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk

Murmuration of a Flock of Small Birds in the Samish FlatsAt twilight, a flock of small birds rose in an ever-changing three-dimensional natural sculpture known as a murmuration

The Seattle Audubon Society has a web site that tells more about the Samish Flats, as well as bird species found around Washington. Go to: BirdWeb.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

SNOWY OWL INVASION: Ghosts from the Arctic Circle

Observing the Snowy Owl invasion during the winter of 2011/2012 along the Washington State coast at Damon Point State Park, where I photographed several Snowy Owls.

Snowy Owl and the rising January full moon, known as the Wolf Moon

As twilight descended, a Snowy Owl gazed at us from a driftwood stump, alert with the promise of hunting in the coming hours. Just then, a reddish-orange moon rose above the horizon, over Grays Harbor along Washington State’s Pacific Ocean coast. Realizing the opportunity, I moved quickly into position, hoping to photograph the rising moon directly behind the sitting owl. The opportunity lasted about 30 seconds, then the moon distorted as clouds ate away at its edges. This brief experience capped a perfect day of watching and photographing Snowy Owls.

The owls use their wings to help lift themselves up to a higher point on a log

Since we have lived in Washington State, this was the third coming of the normally arctic Snowy Owls. There was one in 2006, and prior to that in the mid-1990s. I photographed the owls both times at Damon Point State Park–the place we returned to on January 8, 2012. This year there are a whole host of Hedwigs–Harry Potter’s pet Snowy Owl–at Damon Point, lending a wonderful opportunity to see this charismatic visitor from the arctic.

Damon Point sticks out into Grays Harbor, and is a spit of land constantly renewed and reshaped by harbor currents.  In fact, the landscape had changed so much since our last visit that we didn’t even recognize it.  There is a short asphalt road that leads directly into the ocean–a road to nowhere that used to lead far out on Damon Point.  It was washed away in winter storms, and now visitors have to hike out along the beach to Damon Point.

An alert Snowy Owl, with its bright yellow eyes staring at the photographer

This was the second time this winter we have seen Snowy Owls. The first time was in Michigan, during Christmas, when we were visiting family. We could have seen up to six Snowies at Tawas Point, a spur of land sticking out into Lake Huron that is probably a lot like the Damon Point landscape (minus the spectacular view of Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains over saltwater). But that was too far to drive with family, so we instead spent a couple of pleasant hours at the Muskegon sewage treatment facilities–located right next to the Muskegon dump–where we saw two Snowy Owls and enjoyed an aromatic picnic lunch.

The first time we ever saw Snowy Owls was during the mid-1980s, when we were living in Upstate New York. That year, the owls gathered along the lonely shoreline of Lake Ontario and were undoubtedly also visiting Michigan, Washington State, and the entire tier of far northern states.

The photographers we observed kept a respectful distance from the owls, and used long lenses to get close views

So, the Snowy Owls come down from their normal arctic home about once every decade, in a winter-long invasion that is known as an irruption. Birders long thought that the owls came south because they were hungry. But this year, a new theory has emerged. There was an excellent crop of arctic lemmings during the summer of 2011, which led to the survival and maturing of an excellent crop of Snowy Owls. This high concentration of owls wasn’t sustainable over the bleak midwinter, so many of the owls dispersed southward to the areas we are seeing them now. According to the new theory, they are not starving and are not under a lot of stress. In fact, their lives don’t look too bad; they seem to be enjoying a coastal winter of sleeping and eating–much like the human snowbirds who head to the Gulf Coast for the winter.

Damon Point State Park is a spit of land that is constantly changing, as ocean currents add to it or nibble away at its features

Snowy Owls prefer to winter in places that remind them of home: flat and mostly treeless expanses that are reminiscent of arctic tundra. That’s why some of the best places to see them are airports and wild lands along shores of the Pacific Ocean and Great Lakes. One Snowy Owl took the winter vacation concept a bit too seriously, and ended up at the Honolulu airport in late 2011. It was the first Snowy ever recorded in Hawaii, and it was promptly shot by overzealous airport officials (something about an illegal foreign national threatening an airport …).

At sunset, warm light bathed the owls; after a day of lounging, they were getting ready for the evening hunt

Back to Damon Point. Visiting this lonely stretch of land is always a wonderful experience. On our 2006 visit, we saw the remains of a lost shipwreck that was melting out of the sands. The S.S. Catala had an interesting history, according to a June 2, 2006 article in the Seattle Times:

“Built in Scotland in 1925, the steamer carried woodsmen and miners from British Columbia to Alaska before serving as a floating hotel in Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair. It ended up being towed to Ocean Shores to be a hotel for charter fishermen — complete with poker games and prostitutes — until it tipped over in a storm in 1965.”

In 2006, the S.S. Catala was determined to be leaking oil and was completely scrapped by the State of Washington.

On our 2012 visit, there were surfers and birders and beachcombers and photographers … perhaps 30 serious photographers. This was a huge change from my previous visits. In the mid-1990s, I don’t remember any other photographers out there. I was using film, and exposures of the white owls were tricky (it didn’t help that my lab made a mistake and processed my three days of owl slides at the wrong setting). Now, wildlife photography, even of white owls, is amazingly easy. We can check our exposures and focus immediately and adjust accordingly. This winter will produce an incredible number of great Snowy Owl photographs from hundreds upon hundreds of photographers.

So, what do the owls eat in a landscape lacking lemmings?  Ducks and rats and mice and voles and yappy little dogs. Okay, I made up the last prey item; on the other hand, I wouldn’t put it past them … so if you love little Pooky, keep her on a leash!

We observed about ten Snowy Owls at Damon Point on January 8. There were almost certainly more, as there is a whole area of the peninsula that we did not visit. The hike out to see the owls near the point is about 1.5 miles each way. The owls generally sit on driftwood logs and stumps that are low to the ground. I learned that as the winter progresses, these flat-and-barren-land owls get used to the idea of vertical space–as in trees–and start using higher vantage points. We noticed some doing this already, though most perched low to the ground.

Snowy Owl in flight over Damon Point. Ideally, there would be few owl flights during the day, but with so many visitors coming to see the owls, occasionally one will get disturbed and take flight for a hundred yards or so.

During the day, the owls are mostly napping. When a birder or photographer or dog walker gets within a bird’s comfort zone, it may snap open its yellow eyes and check out the intruder. If it feels threatened, it will take flight and head off a hundred yards or so to a more isolated perch. So, if you go, keep this comfort zone in mind and act responsibly so that others can view the owls.

Alpenglow on Mount Rainier, viewed over Grays Harbor from Damon Point

After photographing the Snowy Owl against the Wolf Moon (one traditional name for the January full moon), we watched the intense pink alpenglow fade on Mount Rainier and saw the last sunset glow fade from the clouds over the Pacific Ocean. The long walk back along beach was accompanied by the cadence of crashing waves and the crunch of cockle shells underfoot.

The January “Wolf Moon” rose over Grays Harbor at sunset, capping off a wonderful day on the coast

Birds ruffle their feathers to rearrange them, fluff them, and presumably make them a more comfortable covering; owls are no exception. It amazes me that this chaos of feathers ends up perfectly arranged.

Humans, dogs, and owls like a nice muscle stretch after staying in the same position for a long period

Sunset glow on an owl getting ready to hunt

The owls liked to perch on or near one of the numerous driftwood logs and stumps washed in by winter storms

A wildlife photographer in beautiful light, just waiting for the perfect composition

Immature and female Snowy Owls tend to be darker, with more patterning, than the nearly pure white adult males; although rules like this are made to be broken

Using its wings to help hop higher on a beach log; wouldn’t it be great if we had wings to help us hop up mountains?

These owls are graceful flyers, with strong and rhythmic wingbeats

In flight over the grassy beach at Damon Point, with a few short conifers in the distance

A sleepy Snowy Owl yawning (I am so prone to yawning that I yawned as I looked at this picture and typed this caption)

Flying to a quieter location farther out on the point

Waves lapping in along the beach of Damon Point, where we observed the shells of delicious Razor Clams and Heart Cockles

We absolutely loved this day of birding along the outer coast!

For further information about Damon Point State Park, go to Damon Point State Park; there was no sign for the park on our January 2012 visit, but it sits directly adjacent to a private campground, and there are usually cars parked neatly off the road at the entrance.  Birders tend to like Subarus, so just look for the Subarus. The owls will probably be at Damon Point until March 2012.  Then it will be years before they return.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Exploring Black Canyon in Central Washington State

Photographs and stories from three hikes into Black Canyon, located near Naches, Washington State, USA. Wildlife seen included Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Long-Eared Owls, and a Western Rattlesnake.

A fledgling Northern Saw-Whet Owl tries to sleep while I’m watching

In a willow thicket, a squat shape with a rusty color surprised my eyes. We were hoping to see owls, but this looked so SMALL compared with the Long-Eared Owls we had hoped to see. After photographing it for a time, which took a lot of pretzel contortions on the part of me and my tripod to get a graceful view through the willow branches, I worked with Karen and other hikers to identify the bird, which turned out to be a fledgling Northern Saw-Whet Owl–a fierce predator of mice and bugs, at least after Mommy and Daddy teach it to hunt.

After photographing the owl, I looked around for other fledglings in the Trembling Aspen grove surrounding an old settler’s cabin, and stumbled over (literally!) a fallen cottonwood log containing Oyster Mushrooms, which are a favorite with us (soaked in salt water to remove the white worms and black beetles–which should put off most people–then rinsed and fried in pure butter until the gills are browned and crispy. It is basically mushroom-flavored crunchy butter!). Karen gathered the mushrooms while I continued photographing the owl, which paid absolutely no attention to me.

After we finished these activities, we seached the aspen grove for more owls, to no avail. There was a group of backpackers camped at the cabin, which may have influenced where Momma and Papa Long-Ear told their babies to stay.

An old log cabin in an aspen grove

This was our third hiking trip into Black Canyon in the span of four years; we enjoy going back for the birding and wildflowers, which are so different from what we find at our rain forest home. The trail follows a steep old jeep road (now closed to vehicles) up into the canyon, which is a steep-sided gouge into Umtanum Ridge. Carved by a stream, the canyon consists of dramatic basalt formations poking out of slopes covered with wildflowers, Giant Sagebrush, Bitterbrush, and scattered Ponderosa Pines. The canyon bottom is lush with shrubs and trees where the stream and groundwater bathe the roots. The settler’s cabin, located a long mile above the trailhead, must have been a pleasant place to live, with abundant water and enough trees to build the cabin.

Hiking down the Black Canyon trail back to the trailhead

Wildlife is a key part of the experience here. A Golden Eagle soared above the canyon rim as we started the recent hike; a Loggerhead Shrike hunted from a branch as we ended our second hike. Karen surprised a rattlesnake hiding in the grass on our first hike. The aspens have vertical inscriptions left by Elk feeding on the inner bark. Vivid red-and-green Lewis’s Woodpeckers feed on the slopes. Coyotes travel the trail, leaving their sign. There are undoubtedly Cougars hunting among the rocks, probably watching us as we poke along.

The photographs here represent our three hikes into the canyon. If you go, be prepared for ticks and rattlesnakes. The land is owned by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife; a parking pass is required for parking at the trailhead.

Three of the four fledgling Long-Eared Owls we observed on a prior trip into Black Canyon

Basalt formations protrude from the slope, which is blanketed with sagebrush-steppe vegetation

Loggerhead Shrike hunting in the rain. Years ago, during an Ontario winter, we observed where a shrike had stored mice for later use by impaling them on the namesake 1.5″ thorns of hawthorns. 

Fledgling Long-Eared Owl. This species often hides well in the trees by standing tall and thin–like a branch. They can be surprisingly hard to see when they do this.

Western Rattlesnake along the Black Canyon Trail, coiled and ready

Ponderosa Pines along the trail

For more information about the trail and how to drive to the trailhead, as well as recent trail reports, go to Washington Trails Association/Black Canyon

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

DIAMOND CRATERS: Visions of Hell Quenched

Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area is a fascinating, geologically recent, volcanic hotspot in eastern Oregon.

 

 

Great Horned Owl at Diamond CratersGreat Horned Owl in Lava Pit Crater

 

 

A time traveler here could see red magma flowing out of deep vents and volcanic bombs tossed through the air as a huge blast forms deep craters.  A version of hell or a terrible war zone.  This is Diamond Craters, a place unexpected in the remoteLava Pit Crater within Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area desert.  Karen and I visited Diamond Craters in late April 2009, in conjunction with our trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which I described in another recent post:  Malheur in April.

 

Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area is on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land adjacent to Malheur.  One of the wonderful aspects of the experience here is that we can explore on our own; there is a volcanic cinder road and a few short (but poorly marked) trails.  Other than that, we are free to tramp around the craters and cut our boots on jagged lava and watch for rattlesnakes and enjoy the vast blue desert sky.

 

I’ve been here several times over the years, and the first time was terrific, when I climbed down into Lava Pit Crater and observed a family of Great Horned Owls with three nearly mature young.  Karen and I decided this time that we could try and see if the owls still nested there.  While glassing the sheer walls of the crater from the rim, I spotted a mature Great Horned Owl perched on a ledge along the vertical wall.  We decided at that point that we would make a careful descent into the heart of the crater.

 

Lava Pit Crater is not large or deep, but the path down is tricky.  The first time I climbed down it, about 15 years ago, I fell and conked my long lens against a boulder.  My body is getting more fragile as I age, so I have to be more careful now (he says while nursing an ankle sprained while jogging!).  We took our time on this hike, and made it to the bottom without incident.  The broken volcanic rock is unstable underfoot, making a clanking sound when rock hits rock.

 

Inside the crater, we found the nest, which wasn’t too difficult; we just looked for the places with a lot of “whitewash.”  One adult was sitting on the nest, and eventuallyGreat Horned Owl on nest in Diamond Craters we saw a youngster sticking its fuzzy white head out from beneath the mother.  The nestling was too young to hold its head up for long, and it repeatedly wriggled under its parent’s body for shelter and warmth.

 

We spent the rest of the day investigating the craters and scattered wildflowers of Diamond Craters.  We especially enjoyed the sight of Malheur Maar, which is a crater resulting from a volcanic explosion that later filled with water.  The small desert lake has held water for about 7,000 years, according to scientists, and was home to Red-winged Blackbirds and American Coots during our visit.  Its deep sediments have botanical clues to the climate of the geologically recent past.

 

Malheur Maar in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural AreaMalheur Maar is an explosive volcanic crater now filled with water; the tiny, geologically important lake is home to waterfowl and marsh birds

 

The BLM has an outstanding brochure, available online, called the Diamond Craters Tour Brochure that interprets the geological formations of Diamond Craters.  I found this brochure to be among the most informative interpretive guides I’ve ever read; it is endlessly informative and doesn’t “dumb it down” for the general public.  The brochure says that the volcanic activity at Diamond Craters is relatively recent at under 25,000 years.  The hot springs in the region, including the one below Steens Mountain that is such a great place to soak on a cold day, show that geothermal activity is alive and well nearby.

 

Side-blotched Lizard PortraitSide-blotched Lizard in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area

 

 

Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)Sand Lily growing on volcanic tuff

 

 

East Twin Maar in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area

East Twin Maar, a volcanic crater caused by an explosion

 

 

Western Juniper stands alone in the prairieA Western Juniper stands alone on the flanks of a volcanic crater complex

 

 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit jawbonesJackrabbit jawbones from animals probably killed by a Great Horned Owl

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.

 

October 19, 2008 The Owl and the Subaru

We heard through the birding grapevine that on 27 September skilled birders had spotted an unusual owl in Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The Northern Hawk Owl is normally found farther north, in the boreal forests of Canada, Alaska, and Russia.


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. 

To see a variety of my photographic work, including photos for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

Click on the photographs below for versions with captions.