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Our Birds: A tale of owls

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I stood listening. Nothing. I called again. Still nothing. I looked at the time: 3:42 a.m. The owl wasn’t cooperating. I could hear Jimmycomelately Creek down in the ravine. I needed a cup of tea. I walked back to the Westy, slid the door open, stepped in, put a kettle on the stove and waited. The kettle started to boil. Reaching for it, I heard the owl way downstream. Twelve notes saying “I’m a northern saw-whet owl.” Maybe it was the sound of the kettle’s whistling that tweaked it into answering; or maybe it was just talking.

 

Why was I parked miles back in the forest at 4 a.m. trying to get an owl to talk to me? Well, it started this way. One afternoon early winter, Frank Goshen was walking along Gibson Spit; he looked out over the driftwood and standing on a mound of sand was an owl.

 

An owl that shouldn’t be there. Frank was there because his daughter had seen an owl there the day before, so he went to check it out. The owl? A burrowing owl. Its occurrence here? It’s so rare the word rare isn’t even meaningful.

 

The second reason goes like this, but I’ll paraphrase for brevity: “We drove up to the corner of Lotzgesell and Kitchen-Dick, got out, an owl flew over, landed in a tree and I took a photo.” What Ryan Merrill took a photo of was a long-eared owl. It’s another bird so rare here that to say you saw one requires a book and a right hand raised. Yet, there it was. In a tree. On a corner. A corner I’ve stood at a hundred times watching other owls.

 

So, as I write this I’m thinking I’m supposed to convince you that those two owls are the reason I was now sipping a cup of Earl Grey way back in the forest on a pitch-black night listening to another owl talk? Uh-huh. Why, you ask? Well, the rest of the tale goes like this. Yesterday at dusk I was at the same corner standing in the field hoping for a glimpse of the long-eared owl when I saw a short-eared owl come up from its ground roost, swing north and begin hunting. At that moment the LEO came winging over the ground toward the SEO, which it engaged in an owl’s aerial brouhaha. They mixed it up a bit before the SEO flew one way and the LEO the other. Wow! I called a friend, “… I just saw the LEO engage a SEO …” with more talk following. Just as I was hanging up he said, “So … you gonna go chasing 10 owls?”

Ten owls?

 

I never really answered him, just sort of mumbled something incoherent. Earlier that afternoon I’d seen a snowy owl at Three Crabs. With these two and the snowy, that made it three owls. But to go chasing for 10 owls? That isn’t something easy to do anywhere — unless you live in Clallam County where two rare owls are known to be present; where several more are uncommon but findable; and a few others are here but just hard to locate. Chase 10 owls? Was it possible?

 

I took the long way home. Driving across Hogback, up Lamar, across Lotzgesell, down Ward past the Olympic Game Farm. At the donkey’s feed area I stopped. I stood on the road and called. And waited. There! Across the river. Barred owl. They have a way of talking that’s haunting. They hoot, bawl, scream, cackle and babble. This one just did its sing-song Who Who Who-cooks-for-you-allllllll. Four owls. Then south to Woodcock, north on Towne toward the Dungeness Creamery and just past the second bend there it was. As I slowed, it lifted off the fence post. Barn owl. Five! I drove on to Dungeness. Shut the Westy down. Got out and across the river heard the great horned owl talking. Six! Damn! I thought 10 really might be possible. I knew where to find the other four: Graysmarsh on Holland, Woods Road south of Blyn, Palo Alto Road just before dawn and then a walk down Gibson Spit, but …

 

The western screech owl took its own sweet time to answer. It was way down the hollow. I called again and waited. There! Faint, but its bouncing ball song was bouncing. Seven! I headed to Blyn and south to where I was just now finishing my tea. I tucked the cup and kettle away, stepped outside and listened to the saw-whet still tooting. Eight! I drove farther south into the forest.

 

It was cold. Snow crunched underfoot. I stood on the edge of the canyon and called. One whistled note slowly over and over. Waited. Then again. There! And there! Back at me they answered from left and right. Two owls. Both repeating the same pattern. I stood in quiet awe as these two owls now talked to each other, not me. Northern pygmy owls. Nine!

 

I paused. Standing there on the end of the spit. I looked out over the bay at grebes, scoters, loons, geese. I turned back to the driftwood sandbox where the owl should be, but wasn’t. I stood and shrugged my shoulders. OK. Nine owls. Not 10. Nine was incredible. Ten owls would have been bewildering — worthy of a dance. But the hollow the owl had inhabited the past month was empty. I lifted my binocs again and scanned the beach, logs, dunes. Nothing. Nine owls was good. Really good. There isn’t another county in Washington, or North America for that matter, where you could do that in 24 hours. I turned and stood looking down the beach. I stood looking down the beach at a log with an odd shaped brown blob on it. I stood looking at a burrowing owl looking back at me looking at it. TEN!

I danced The Dance!

 


Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at dennyvanhorn@gmail.com.

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