An Unexpected Encounter

A bull moose emerges from the cattails along Forde Lake in Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A bull moose emerges from the cattails along Forde Lake in Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The witchety-witchety-witchety came from the cattails bordering the lake. An eight-foot band of emergent vegetation formed a green ribbon that highlighted the open water. A Common Yellowthroat was singing not a dozen feet from my car’s open window. It was 4:45 AM, and I had just left my campsite to bump along this dirt track. The sun wouldn’t rise for another quarter-hour, and it would be much longer before the warm rays hit Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Valley.

The singing yellowthroat was hidden in the thick stems, but its song was loud and clear. The background sounds of blackbirds, ducks, flycatchers, and kingbirds enhanced the solo, and I slowly opened my door so that I could fetch my sound recording equipment from the backseat. I took two tentative steps toward the backdoor when loud splashes erupted from the lake.

The Bull Moose begins to trott up the hill and away from Forde Lake where it had been feeding on wetland plants. Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Bull Moose begins to trot up the hill and away from Forde Lake, where it had been feeding on wetland plants. Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

There, not a hundred yards away, a bull moose thrashed in a small cove. He galloped along the edge of the cattails, water coming partway up his side, and splashes going above his head. His palmate antlers looked half grown on this mid-June morning. My first thoughts were to chastise myself for not scanning the lake before I opened the door. Then I wondered if I froze, might he calm down and go back to feeding. I reached back into the front to grab my telephoto lens as the beast plowed into the thick cattails, totally disappearing.

These ungulates moved into Washington in only the last century. I knew they were in the Selkirk Mountains but hadn’t realized they were on the east side of the Cascades in Okanogan County.  A few years back, a census by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that over 5,000 moose now live in this state. Their highest density is in the northeast. Although sometimes taken by wolves, the biggest threat to Washington’s moose seems to be the increase in ticks. The warming climate has allowed tick numbers to explode, and a significant infestation on an individual moose can suck enough blood to affect its condition.

The moose jogs through the tall grass of Sinlahekin Natural Area as it heads in the hills and away from Forde Lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The moose jogs through the tall grass of Sinlahekin Natural Area as it heads in the hills and away from Forde Lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

This male exploded out of the cattails and onto the grass-covered plain that rose from the lake. He stopped briefly to look back at me, and then trotted along at a brisk pace, surprisingly graceful for such a gangly looking member of the deer family. Their legs are extremely long, allowing them to wade in deep water for aquatic plants and reach high into bushes and trees when they browse. Once, when I was in Alaska, I watched a moose and her large calf graze. They had to walk on their knees to be able to reach the grass. Aquatic plants and browse are their primary foods.

He moved at a diagonal up the hill. This guy probably stood five feet at the shoulders, maybe more, and weighed at least a thousand pounds. I kept snapping photographs, even though it was still dark, and I could only see a silhouette in the images. Maybe, I’d be able to pull some more detail out of the files. His dewlap hung under his neck, and that sizeable muscular nose gave him the unique look of this species. His antlers were covered in velvet, and I wondered how big they’d grow this summer.

He ran to the edge of some sagebrush, now a quarter-mile away, and paused. His magnificent profile made me hold my breath, hoping he might turn back. But no, he disappeared then over the rise. I stood for the longest time watching where he’d gone before getting back into my car. The Yellowthroat had stopped singing.

The moose approaches a patch of sagebrush up the hill from Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Natural Area of Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The moose approaches a patch of sagebrush up the hill from Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Natural Area of Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Mother’s Concern

The Mule Deer stood like a stature on the crest of the hill above Mary Anne Creek. Her glare was intense and her ears cocked forward. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Mule Deer stood like a statue on the crest of the hill above Mary Anne Creek. Her glare was intense and her ears cocked forward. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Her black eyes glared down the hill, and her face muscles were taught. She had her two large ears cocked forward, pointing directly at me. Just her neck and head were above the dense prairie vegetation, and a few grass stems waved in front of her eyes. I’d been working along the edge of Mary Anne Creek looking for birds when a strange feeling made me turn and look up the thirty-foot bank. This mule deer stared down at me, looking more like a statue than something alive.

The Okanogan is a hunting area, and even though this was mid-June, I was surprised she hadn’t taken off at first sight of a human. I whispered to my two friends, “Look up on the hill.” The grass was thick, maybe two feet high, and a few lupins and daisies bloomed amongst the stems. At 10:30 AM, I’d would have expected her to be bedded down, resting away the day. 

The two small ears of a fawn appeared in the grass as the mother Mule Deer continued to stare at me. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The two small ears of a fawn appeared in the grass as the mother Mule Deer continued to stare at me. Mary Anne Creek, Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Both mule and white-tailed deer live in the Okanogan Highlands. This individual had the large ears and whiter face typical of mule deer. Her ears seemed to flex a little, and she took a short but tentative step forward. It made me freeze even more and begin to scan in front of her. Sure enough, a few dozen feet closer to me was some movement in the grass. Then two small ears started to show and a rump, too. A fawn rose from a napping spot and moved up the hill toward the doe. The little one was cantering, her front showing with each bound forward. I watched to see if a second one appeared.

The fawn began to bound up the hill toward the doe who was standing above Mary Anne Creek in the Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The fawn began to bound up the hill toward the doe who was standing above Mary Anne Creek in the Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Often, does have two fawns, but first-time mothers may only have one. She looked healthy, but nothing gave me a hint of her age. This would be a Rocky Mountain mule deer, one of ten subspecies found across western North America. West of the Cascades, where I live, is the Columbian black-tailed version. Mule deer numbers have decreased in the Okanogan over the last few decades, and the reasons are unclear. Scientists think that the increase in white-tailed deer in eastern Washington has allowed a growth in cougar populations, and these cats apparently take more mule deer than expected based on the abundance of the two deer species. 

As the fawn approached her mother, the doe’s face seemed to relax; her ears turned backward, but yet she maintained her glare at me. Rows of white spots ran up the fawn’s back. It must have been pretty young, and I wished for a better view. The two quietly disappeared over the hill, and all that remained was waving grass stems in the mid-morning sun.

The Mule Deer relaxed her ears as her fawn approached her side but she kept her eyes fixed on me. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Mule Deer relaxed her ears as her fawn approached her side but she kept her eyes fixed on me. Mary Anne Creek, Okanogan Highlands (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A Magical Musical Bird: The Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

The whistle came from a thick grove of old growth western hemlocks and Douglas firs. It might have been a tenth of a second long and then was followed immediately by a 2 second upward spirally flourish. It seemed like a flute or maybe an oboe was up in the trees. I stopped dead in my tracks along the dirt road and pointed my parabolic microphone in that direction.

The dense forest where the Swainson’s Thrush Sang.

Three seconds later a much softer whistle opened the tune followed almost immediately by a louder longer one and then a beautiful spirally flourish. The flourish was also a set of over-slurred phrases, each close together and slightly higher than the previous, getting softer as they went. My eyes closed to listen to this Swainson’s Thrush, a one-ounce bird who only recently arrived from his wintering grounds in South America. They breed in the temperate rainforests of Western Washington, and this one was defending its territory and maybe still trying to find a mate.

I’d read that each male has 3 to 7 song types. They vary in their detail and successive songs will be different. I cupped one hand behind an ear to listen closely. The opening whistles seemed to vary in pitch, sometimes one note and sometimes two. The flourishes were so complex and fast that I couldn’t tell how they varied. Maybe the sonograms of my sound recording would help me understand his melody.

The first song of the Swainson’s Thrush on my recording.

The first tune in the sonogram opened with two notes and then the upward spiraling flourish. The second note was louder than the first (as shown by the brighter color on the sonogram) and then the first section of the flourish was loud before it became fainter and went really high in pitch. The opening over-slurred whistles seemed to peak around G6 on the note scale. The first second of the next part went from G6 to G7 to B7 in a series of up and down notes. Then the song became softer and went all the way up to B8 before trailing out for another second around F7. The highest pitches and faint parts I could not hear, but I’m sure the birds could.

The second song by this same Swainson’s Thrush.

The next tune was dramatically different from that first. It opened with a soft up-slurred note and then two over-slurred whistles that were slightly louder before moving into a quicker paced flourish that included a series of over-slurred, up-slurred, and down-slurred notes. The pitch of the entire tune never went as high as the first, only reaching about D8. The next several also appeared a little different from these first two and after six or seven tunes, the bird was clearly repeating itself. 

Above is a Five-Minute Recording of the Swainson’s Thrush singing. The Sonogram of the recording will play as a movie and allow you to see the changing notes. The scale runs from 0 Herts to 10,000 herts.

The songs of Swainson’s Thrushes make my tension float away. These magical musical birds provide a gift of music to our souls.

Swainson’s Thrush