A cattail marsh with a small pond in its middle extended upstream, and a swamp of willows and cattails ran downstream. I stood on a narrow causeway where Mary Ann Creek ran through a culvert under the dirt road listening to the morning chorus. It was diverse, energetic, and loud. Right then, a Wilson’s Snipe was dominating the cacophony with its persistent jick-jack. The snipe must have been sitting someplace and letting everyone know that he or she was there. Both sexes will give this call, and it is a component of pair formation and territorial defense. I tried to ignore the snipe and concentrated on identifying the other birds.
Mary Ann Creek runs through a gentle valley with mostly grasslands covering the slopes on both sides. This area of the Okanogan Highlands is just south of the Canadian border and often filled with birds not found west of the Cascades. Here, along the valley’s south side, a narrow strip of conifers and aspens grow on the lower slope providing a different upland habitat.
Three Red-winged Blackbirds were perched high in willows right along the dirt track and periodically gave their musical song. They seemed to ignore my presence and concentrated on announcing theirs. A Eurasian Collared-Dove cooed in the distance, probably back in one of the Ponderosa Pines. The melodic tune of a Song Sparrow and the fitz-bu of a Willow Flycatcher filled out the initial ensemble.
A few minutes later, the long-drawn-out whistle of a Western Wood-Pewee caught me by surprise, and I turned to stare into the small coppice of trees along the edge. Almost immediately, a California Quail called from in that direction. I raised my binoculars to scan all the trees and see what else might be there. Flickers and bluebirds had been in the patch when I’d been here before, and other things could have easily been there.
The sweet, sweet, sweet ti ti ti to soo of a Yellow Warbler and the complex trill of a House Wren brought my attention back to the willows. A brief chatter made me think of Northern Catbirds. I wished it to sing, but it didn’t. I often find them farther down this road, where the willows are thick and dense. An American Coot made a brief squawk and then went silent. No rails, though, made their presences known. A Common Yellowthroat rounded out my list of vocal feathered friends. Occasionally a male Yellow-headed Blackbird will be in the cattails, but none today. They are common in a more extensive marsh downstream from this site.
It seemed like I heard twelve, maybe thirteen species in the ten minutes I stood: a fine chorus for the day.
I cupped my hands around my ears. The sweet evening song of a Swainson’s Thrush drowned out all but the faint babble of the creek down the short draw. A distant second one made an echo of the first. Their opening whistles and spiral flourishes were spectacular. At any other time, I would have stopped and listened, but there was another sound I was straining to hear.
The previous evening, Julie, Craig, and I had come along this trail in Okanogan National Forest just as final twilight had been fading. The “sher-rick” call that repeated every few seconds came from a patch of Douglas firs and lodgepole pines across a small creek. We searched for the source of the sound for thirty minutes, but the light was mostly gone, and we could detect no movement. Craig and I had come back, but right then, all I could hear was the thrushes.
This was prime habitat for the gray ghost of the northern boreal forest. Great Gray Owls are large birds, looking bigger than a Great Horned Owl, although actually weighing a little less. A female may approach three pounds, and a male a little over two. They prefer mature forests with numerous meadows, bogs, and small openings spread through the trees. This species breeds throughout Alaska, Canada, and across Northern Europe and Asia, but only in some high elevation dry forests in the Western United States. These rodent eaters are often quite elusive, making them difficult to find. They occasionally fly out of their remote homes in winter, but my searches had consistently failed to find one.
After moving in the direction of the previous night’s screech, I put a pair of headsets over my ears and pointed my microphone into the woods. Its parabolic reflector would amplify any sound. There it was, the “sher-rick” call of an owlet, persistent but faint, and a little off to our left, and then it stopped. We crept in that direction, scanning up and down trees, looking for a shadow or blob that might be a roosting owlet. Young Great Grays will jump out of their nests when only a few weeks old. Much like rambunctious teenagers, they strive for independence well before they can fly or care for themselves. After tumbling to the earth, the young owls will climb leaning trees to get off the ground and then hop from branch to branch back into the canopy. Usually, they sit right against the trunk on a horizontal branch, waiting for their parents to feed them.
Twice more over the next half hour, I put the headsets on to refine the direction toward the begging. Finally, after moving several hundred yards back into the forest, we heard the whining child without the aid of the parabolic reflector. Craig and I eased toward a small meadow with a clump of larches, firs, and pines surrounding it. I stepped around a six-inch lodgepole pine and scanned every tree in front of me, up and down the trunks.
Craig, who stood tight by my left shoulder, tapped my arm and pointed almost straight up. There, forty feet up a pine, sat a downy owlet on a small side branch. It was right against the trunk as expected, his clawed talons curling over the branch and his eyes looking straight down at us. I started the sound recorder, set the microphone down, pointed into the coppice, and focused my long lens on the owlet. As my camera began to capture pictures, Craig again tapped my shoulder, pointing this time across in front of me.
Two owlets, both with slightly longer wing and tail feathers than the first, sat about a few feet apart on a horizontal branch nearly forty feet up, and one gave that “sher-rick” call while they both stared right at us. Their dark eyes gave the impression of curiosity and amazement in seeing these strange two-legged creatures that had walked into their home. All three seemed totally unafraid of us. As I focused my camera, an adult flew silently into the frame, gliding up to land beside the screeching owlet where it passed a vole from its mouth to the young and then dropped off the branch flying back through the forest. The ghost had come and gone.
The breath slowly left my lungs as I continued to stare at the one with a vole hanging from its mouth like a long piece of thick brown licorice. These owls are not rare in their prime habitat, but because these dry interior montane forests are remote and inaccessible, few people have the chance to see one. Adults hunt from perches, and a perfect hunting site is a short tree on the edge of a meadow where the bird can scan for rodents. The facial feather disk on their oversized head directs sound to their acute ears, and they hunt almost entirely by hearing the prey. These owls can plunge through a foot or more of snow to snare a mouse or vole in winter. Pocket gophers burrow through the soil and are another favorite food.
After a minute, the owlet wolfed down the vole in one giant swallow and then flew behind trees to land precariously on the top of a subalpine fir, where it swayed back and forth in the breeze. Its sibling followed it back into the forest. The adult came in again, landing in the middle of the thicket where it glared right at me while another vole hung from its mouth. Then the second adult arrived also with something in its mouth. It was as if these two predators had flown down to the local corner store for a snack of fresh live meat for their children.
For 30 minutes, I stood silently watching while Craig snuck to my right to see if he could spot where the other two had gone. An adult came in at least twice more but never to the one above my head. That baby yawned a few times, stretched its wings, flexed one or the other foot, but never moved. Occasionally, it became bored of us and stared into the forest. It never begged or seemed distressed that a parent didn’t come to visit. Finally, the light was fading, and we decided to back out of this place and leave the owls to their own. As we strolled through the forest, the occasional screeches from the owlet pushed us along, and a cloud of mosquitos buzzed around our heads. Neither of us thought to swat at those that feasted on our blood.
An hour-long recording of the evening serenade of the two Swainson’s thrushes mentioned early in this essay can be heard on Spotify or you can find it on Amazon and on Apple Music.
The high-pitched whistles, very flute-like, came from a dense patch of forest just off the Big Tree Loop. The notes had a resonating quality to them that held in one’s brain for long after they passed. Several notes followed relatively close together, then a long pause before a different tune was uttered. Reinaldo and I had left the lodge early that morning to hike the network of trails at Mount Totumas. I was particularly interested in recording the song of a Black-faced Solitaire, and we had found one.
This small thrush is in the genus Myadestes. The genus has some remarkable songsters. In undergraduate school, I traveled numerous times with friends in Mexico, and there we heard the Brown-backed Solitaire sing. After graduating, I purchased a print of George Miksch Sutton’s painting of that species and hung it in my house. In the painting, the bird is singing from a branch surrounded by orchids in flower and other epiphytes. Their voice is ventriloqual and that makes it difficult to find them. Hearing the Black-faced singing in Panama made me suspect that they too can project their voice. Oh, to watch a Black-faced sing from a perch such as Sutton painted for its relative would be a thrill.
Ridgely and Gwynne translated the black-faced song as “teedleeleé … tleedleeé … lee-dah … lee-doo.” This bird, though, seemed to use more phrases than they listed and had a series of different tunes before repeating. The slowness and crisp notes reminded me of a fiddler who might be sitting by himself on a porch enjoying the sun and afternoon. Of course, we are not supposed to anthropomorphize, but I can’t imagine that this bird doesn’t enjoy singing.
Scientists have not studied the song of this species very much. Consequently, we don’t know much about its variation within or between individuals. I wondered if it was like our Hermit Thrush in the Pacific Northwest. Each male thrush has 9 to 12 different opening sequences and then elaborate flourishes that follow each. They mix up their songs, and adjacent males rarely have similar tunes. Perhaps, this Black-faced individual has developed his repertoire to deal with his neighbors and keep his territory safe from intruders.
His frequency range was broad, extending the full spectrum of a grand piano, and some notes went even higher than that. Like other thrushes, he uses both of his syrinxes to make his melodious song.
Loud catcalls came from the willows along Sinlahekin Creek, followed by whistles and rattles. A short pause happened between individual notes, and then a new and different call came. The diversity of sounds that this bird produced was astonishing, and I began to creep along the edge to see if I could spot this Yellow-breasted Chat.
In Central Washington, chats live in riparian areas where the vegetation is thick and dense. Often, they are secretive, skulking through the thickets and challenging to see, but sometimes males will sit high and on exposed twigs when they sing. The Sinlahekin Valley runs north-south on the eastern side of the Cascades. All along the stream are copses of willows—perfect habitat for this songbird.
I saw my first chat when I was still in high school. Our neighbors in Western Pennsylvania had let brush grow up in one of their fields, and a pair had taken up residence. On my way back from a walk into the hollow, I found a male singing in a thicket and ran home to tell my mother about it. They occur across much of the eastern United States and the interior west.
Back then, Ornithologists thought this bird was an overgrown warbler. However, recent genetic work and behavioral studies have suggested it might be more closely related to the blackbird family and has been given its own family, Icteriidae. Nevertheless, ornithologists find it an enigma, and its taxonomy remains controversial. Finding one is always a thrill because it reinforces in my mind that we have so much to learn about the natural world.
Chuckles, rattles, gurgles, and pops came from a branch sticking right over the creek. This diversity made me remember that one study found that the repertoire of some males could average more than 60 different calls, and this guy seemed to be right on par. A sonogram of their call really illustrates this diversity. So there he was, sitting on a branch three feet below the top of a bush and just calling away.
His yellow breast glistened in the morning sun, and his throat puffed out with each note. I settled to watch this songster perform.