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Our Birds: The Local Patch
I bird Dungeness. I bird Schmuck Road. I bird Neah Bay. And I bird everywhere in between in Clallam county.
But the Dung, Schmuck and NB are where I spend a lot of time birding. Why? Well, it has to do with the privy of a Local Patch. A Local Patch is a place where you know every nook and cranny, every snag, every tree, every thicket or bramble. It’s the habitat of the birds. It’s a place that’s not mysterious. It’s a place you bird with some expectation of what you’ll find – most of the time.
But it doesn’t mean that a Patch is boring, habitual in expectations, or tedious with repetition. A Patch is simply somewhere you go because you truly enjoy birding it over and over. So let me take you on an outing to a Local Patch. One I made just a few mornings ago.
Schmuck Road T’s off Port Williams road to the north and T’s into Washington Harbor Road to the south. It’s not very long, maybe three miles. The road bisects agriculture lands … all of it posted, “No Trespassing.” The crops vary year to year, sometimes silage corn or hay grass. Sometimes the fields remain fallow. There’s a swath that looks like a giant’s garden with an eight-foot fence around it; vegetable crops have been grown there. There are hedges, a hay barn, fence rows. The area is bordered to the west by woods, dwellings and the Triangle Pond; to the east by fringe forests along the strait. There’s a dead-end spur road that borders the Hundred Acre Woods.
There are only a handful of places where you can pull off the road, park, and safely spend time birding without being run over.
Most people know the area because of the Roosevelt elk herd that sometimes wanders through or the trumpeter swans; visible critters that use the area in fall and winter. When you drive the road for the first time, it seems to emit a visual austerity that says, “Not very birdy!” But that’s not its reality.
On the scene
The rains the day before were hard and intense. The winds were constant with gusts to 60 mph. So I never expected to wake to clear skies and a westerly breeze. Standing on the back porch, a cup of coffee in hand, I watched gaggles of white-fronted geese fly over.
Tossing the grounds from the cup into the yard, I looked down at the pup and said, “Hey, wanna go for a ride over to the Schmuck and see what’s going on?”
The pup cocked her head sideways, and — of course, being an 11-month-old lab – got that look that said she grasped four words: “ … go for a ride.” She jumped into the back of the Westy.
I loaded scope and tripod, laid the parabolic and recorder in, sat the camera on the seat, and made sure my binocs were on the dashboard. With another cup of coffee in hand, we made our way southeast.
I pulled into the first pullout across from the Long Hedge, got out, let the pup out and just stood. White-fronted geese and cacklers were coming in from the north, south and the west. They were falling out of the sky down to the Triangle Pond. Nine flocks. And another six. Eight more. Each flock holding 50 or more birds. They numbered to the thousands!
I reached in for the camera. Later, I got out the stool I sit on when I want to just watch. I sat the scope up and changed to a wide-angle lens … and shadowed geese as they floated out of the sky.
To the north I heard them coming, talking their prehistoric talk: Sandhill cranes. I ran back to the Westy and pulled out the parabolic, turned the recorder on and touched the red button as I swung the parabolic to the north.
Up the road I also heard a truck coming on. Hate that. When you record, you don’t want extraneous obnoxious sounds – you want the purity of the birds. Doesn’t happen that way. The truck went past and I watched the cranes coming over, counting 36, 37, 38! Strung out with cacklers mixed in.
The pup was looking up, too. I watched as they continued south.
Then they began a slow upward spiral. Were they gaining elevation to head over the mountains? Maybe.
The geese kept coming. WOW!
Falcon. Peregrine! It came in from the northeast, high. Steady wing beats. A dark bird. Looked like a juvy Peale’s.
There was a farmer in the plowed field north of the hay barn on a tractor pulling a seed planter behind him mundanely going back and forth. A couple dozen California gulls were following behind him. Along the Long Hedge sparrows were flitting out from the brambles into the field: song, white-crowned, golden-crowned, Lincoln’s. A lone towhee.
Something else was in the field. They flushed and flew across the road; three birds. Two of them were horned larks. I recognized their plaintive babble. But the third? I walked down the edge of the field, stopping, looking. Trying to find this little brown job in the stubble. I’d catch a glimpse, but no ID markings.
Then it came up on a dirt clod — Lapland longspur. Oh my! Sometimes in mid-winter we get a few longspurs somewhere, so this was a treat. I tried to get a photo. No way. Not in that stubble mesh. A savannah sparrow flew past. Then another. I watched them flit to the fence and perch. That yellowishness on their face was striking in the sun.
A harrier came flying over the stubble up near the wind-turbine. He came low over the ground, searching, turning, a low-languid coursing flight. I heard them before I saw them, Tu-tu-tu-tu. Short billed dowitchers coming in from the north. I moved the parabolic following them as they flew in high. They turned and twisted down quickly settling in the field just west of where the tractor was now sitting empty. Moving the scope, I searched for them. Too far. The morning was passing. Snow goose! There in that flock of cacklers. A yellowlegs called high overhead. The light breeze begin to turn into one that forced a down vest to be pulled out of the Westy and slipped on. Raven. Red-tailed hawk. western meadowlark singing.
Clouds were beginning to pass across the sun. Merlin. Crows to the east. American pipit high overhead. The temperature dropped noticeably when that happened. A queenfisher flew over. I watched, thinking “That’s odd.” A little past noon I looked at the pup and said, “Well pup, what’s say we head over to Kitchen-Dick ponds and see what’s going on there, eh?” As usual, she just cocked her head and did that lap-pup thing: wagged her whole body!
So we left this Local Patch and headed to another.
Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org.