What Did You Expect from a Toucan?

A pair of Toco Toucans land in a tree at House Alegro in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A pair of Toco Toucans land in a tree at Pouse Alegro in the Pantanal of Brazil.

“Toucan,” erupted from the person on my right. In the canopy, two large birds with bright colors were mainly silhouetted against the sky, but some yellow, red, and white showed. The long bill was enough to confirm that two toucans had arrived in the Pantanal.

This was my last day in Brazil, and I’d seen Toco Toucans fly over two or three times but never had a decent look. Yesterday, a pair at Rio Claro flew across the Rio Sararé just as the sun broke the horizon. The sky and low light silhouetted their bodies. That long thick bill was unmistakable. Unfortunately, my camera didn’t focus fast enough in that nonexistent light.

Toco Toucan

The bill on a toucan is a thing of wonder. In this species, it is about a third the length of the bird but weighs very little. With strong, finely tuned muscles in their necks, these birds can use it like a fine tweezer. The bill is strong and tough. The outer layer is a series of overlapping keratin tiles that are fused – like armor plating. The interior is like foam and is made of bony fibers and drum-like membranes to form a strong ridge and brace structure – a three-dimensional lattice. The middle is hollow. The bill is a marvel of engineering, and a person who could design something like this would be considered a genius. The overall configuration gives a high degree of strength for minimal weight—evolution at its most remarkable.

Toco Toucan
The bill of a Toco Toucan is large and long but they can manipulate it like a fine pair of tweezers.

The pair hopped down to where both were visible. This Pantanal lodge had put fruits, nuts, and seeds out at first light this morning, and a plethora of doves, finches, guans, chachalacas, and others had come to feed for the last 90 minutes. Toco Toucans are splendid birds, bigger than I’d expected. They are the largest toucan species. Their white bib, black body, red under-tail coverts, and distinctive red-orange bill make them pop on a tree branch. Females apparently average a little smaller, but there was no way to tell that difference in the wild.

A Toco Toucan in the Pantanal of Brazil.

One glided down to a horizontal log attached to two fence posts. This species is primarily frugivores, but they will take bird eggs, nestlings, small birds, lizards, and insects. They can hang upside down and use that long bill to snip fruit from twigs or probe deep into holes. Earlier, a person had spread bananas and mangos across the back of the branch and dropped small pellet-looking stuff on the feeder. Paulo, our Brazilian guide, had said the small fruit-like nuggets were items the toucans particularly liked.

The second one flew to the other end of this natural-looking feeder. It stood staring at us. Maybe fifteen people congregated behind a small fence watching the feeders. We all had homed in on this unique bird. The second one reached down, picking up a small quarter-inch pellet from behind the branch. It seemed to roll it in the tip of that foot-long bill much like a jeweler might role a diamond between her index finger and thumb. It then cocked its head slightly, flipped the nugget up, opening its mouth as the morsel flew to the throat; its foot-long tongue showed for a second as it closed its bill, to then twist a stare right into my eyes as if to say, “What’d you expect?”

A Toco Toucan tosses a nugget in the air and then swallows it. Pantanal, Brazil.
Toco Toucan in the Pantanal of Brazil.
The Toucan looked straight at me.

A Mother Capybara

A mother Capybara and her baby rest on the river bank in the Pantanal of Brazil.
An adult Capybara and a young sit along the river in the Pantanal of Brazil.

Our boat slid slowly around the slight bend. We were cruising up a tributary of the Rio São Lourenco in the Pantanal when I spotted the capybara dozing on the bank. It was early morning, and the sun was still low. A warm light covered her, and although her eyes seemed open, she appeared relaxed. I snapped my binoculars to mine and discovered that a sleeping baby was tight against her side. 

Capybaras are the largest rodent in the world and are common around wetlands in South America, from northern Argentina to Venezuela. I’d never seen one and was looking forward to watching them on this trip. Their common name is derived from several words and translates as “one who eats slender leaves.” Their scientific name comes from Greek and could be translated as “water pig,” although they have no relationship to pigs.

The female cocked her head slightly while the pup continued to doze. She looked remarkable sitting there, much like a giant guinea pig. Her long whiskers around her muzzle were probably highly sensitive. She could easily be a hundred pounds and a rodent at that. People laughed at me when I told them about my excitement to see this animal. “It’s a giant rat,” one person said. No, actually, not that closely related to a rat. Based on their feeding habits, they are more like a rodent version of a moose.

A capybara pub rests beside its mother on the river bank in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A Capybara pup sleeps beside its mother in the Pantanal of Brazil.

These semiaquatic mammals feed extensively in the water and graze in the savannas. On our first day out, we found several floating in a water hyacinth clump. They are good swimmers and regularly hang out in the water. Apparently, they are often social and live in groups with several adult males and even more adult females. Photographs showed a dozen to 20 along the wetland edges. But, so far, I’d not seen more than two adults at once.

Probably, this was a mother and child, but in this species, all the females in a group will help raise the young, and pups suckle from multiple females. It would be interesting to know if females in a group tend to be related: sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, mothers, grandmothers. These two looked tightly bonded. They reminded me of my daughter. She used to climb into my lap or her mother’s, and we would read to her. She lives in Australia now, an ocean away. We didn’t have relatives nearby when she was young and so never benefited from those family bonds to help raise her. She and her husband would have loved to be here with me.

Someone on our boat yelled, “Jaguar.” Only 30 yards away, a Jaguar had stuck its head out through the thick shrubbery and looked up the river. Neither Jaguar nor capybara had seen each other. According to Paulo, our Brazilian guide, jaguars in the Pantanal feed primarily on caimans, but a breakfast of capybara is not out of the question.

An instant later, the giant rodent gave a loud bark, and the mother and baby shot into the water. They swam around the bend, the female barking every few seconds, letting the world know a Jaguar was hunting.

A Jaguar sticks its head out of the vegetation along a river bank in the Pantanal of Brazil.
A Jaguar sticks its head out through the vegetation along a river in the Pantanal of Brazil.

Fishing by a Black-collared Hawk

Black-collared Hawk hunting from the edge of a river in the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil
Black-collared Hawk hunting from the edge of a river in the Pantanal, Mato Grosso, Brazil

Brr-rrrrrrrdddd came from behind me and lasted for close to two seconds. I whipped around and realized it was our boatman making that sound. He was standing in the back of the boat with a five-inch fish in his right hand. The fish was shaped like a bluegill and probably was a piranha, for we were in the Pantanal of Brazil. He made the call a second time and then paused while he waved the fish in the air at a 45-degree angle above his head.

Almost instantly, the exact same sound came from a tree boarding the small river. I put my binoculars back onto the large overhanging branches 20 meters above the water where two Black-collared Hawks sat. I’d watched and photographed these birds as we progressed down the Rio Sararé. The tree was the tallest along this section of the river, and the pair had built their nest in a large branch that projected to the left. Paulo, our Brazilian guide, said the one on the nest was a young one and to watch the other one. I guessed the other might be the female, and probably the male was out hunting. Our boatman began talking in Portuguese. Perhaps, he was telling us to be ready. He continued to wave the fish. The hawk called again, then the boatman, then the hawk. Maybe it would come down to the bait.

Black-collared Hawks occur from southern Mexico south through Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and very northern Argentina. They are associated with freshwater and brackish habitats in lowland tropical regions. This bird feeds primarily on fish, and the undersides of their toes have spines that aid in grabbing and holding onto their prey. Rivers and their gallery forests — like the Rio Sararé where we were right then — are perfect places for this species to feed and breed. I’d never seen this species before this trip, but I knew about it.

A few months ago, Paulo posted a photograph of this hawk flying low over a river in the Pantanal, and I wrote to him about the stunning take and the color of this unique species. I’d come to see it for myself and had asked him when we met a few days ago in Cuiaba if we might see them. 

The head is a creamy white with darker stripes, making the bird look like it had just come out of a beauty parlor. The front of the neck is black, as if the bird is wearing a bowtie or fancy lace collar. The body and inner wings are a bright rufous, and the primaries and tips of the secondaries black. The short tail has some black and rufous barring. Overall, this hawk looks as if it had dressed for a fancy gala. 

Ten of us were in a narrow, flat-bottomed boat with a small outboard motor. The boatman was in the back and Paulo in the very front. The boatman had carefully placed the other eight of us, two across, to even out the weight in this tippy contraption. He’d assigned me to the back row just in front of him and opposite from where I thought he’d throw the fish. To balance, one knee was pushed hard into the seat in front of me, and my other foot spread wide to be as stable as possible. I would need both hands to operate my camera and photograph the bird when it flew. The gentle rock of the boat made me nervous, and I figured it would tip even more when everyone started photographing, but I was determined.

The boatman and Paulo kept talking back and forth in Portuguese, and Paulo would interject “Is everyone ready?” to the rest of us. The sun was behind us, and the water was calm on this July morning. The light was perfect for outstanding photography. The boatman hurled the fish a good 75 feet, and the hawk instantly left her perch, spreading her four-foot wings, flapping gracefully as she dipped toward the fish. I jammed my camera tight to my right eye and pressed the shutter, the motor drive taking pictures as fast as possible. I tried like the dickens to keep the bird in the frame; fortunately, it wasn’t flying particularly fast and seemed to be making a beeline for the fish. Yet the rocking made it particularly tricky, probably meaning I’d sometimes cut off its wings.

A Black-collared Hawk grabs a fish at the surface in the Pantanal of Brazil.

As she approached the fish, her legs dropped down, the talons spread apart, and her legs moved forward like outstretched front legs on a horse coming down from going over a jump. She picked the fish off the water with practically no splash and circled left, away from us to head back toward the tree. I kept following her, taking more photographs, and praying I captured this magnificent demonstration of athleticism. Sure, it was staged, but this showed the grace and precision of their hunting techniques. 

A Black-collared Hawk makes a small splash as it pulls the fish from the water in the Pantanal of Brazil.

I dropped the camera to my chest and plopped back down into the boat, breathless with excitement. Paulo yelled from the front, “Did everyone get it?” And I hoped I had. The motor drives on nine cameras made it sound like multiple machine guns were going off all at once. Hundreds of pictures had been taken. I began to look at mine on the back of my camera. Smiling, I seemed to have an incredible series; unfortunately, on a few, I had cut the wings, and on others, the bird wasn’t in the middle, but I was delighted with the results. I raised my binoculars to look back at this stunning raptor.

Black-collared Hawk rises from the river with a fish in its talons.

The Black-collared Hawk had gone back into the tree, but I couldn’t tell if she still had the fish or had given it to the nestling. Apparently, this species generally lays only one or two eggs and often raises just a single nestling. The young looked fully grown and probably was close to leaving the nest. After fledging, it will stay with the parents for several more months as it learns to feed on its own. According to Birdlife International, the species is still relatively abundant and not of immediate conservation concern, but the Peregrine Fund warns that populations have been declining in recent decades. On the other hand, we’d seen a lot of individuals over the last week in the Pantanal, so maybe they are doing well here.

The boat drifted for several minutes as we chattered about what had just happened. Eventually, the boatman started the motor, and we cruised down this Pantanal river for another hour, photographing other riverine wonders. My mind, though, kept coming back to that flight, the grab, and the return.

At the Edge of an Aspen Grove

The leaves on the quaking aspens rustled in the light breeze.

Rustling sounds filled the meadow while millions of small silvery flashes came from the copse. It was just a gentle breeze that morning but enough to make the leaves flutter. A pale green then green-silver would sparkle, and waves of these flickerings would transverse back and forth, like ripples moving across a small pond. No wonder these trees are called quaking aspens. 

A group of Tree Swallows flew around the nest box chattering away as they greeted each other.

A loud commotion came from my left. Just 20 feet away, a 6-foot high post had a birdhouse. Six chattering Tree Swallows were doing acrobatics within a few feet of the box. A pair had a nest there, and perhaps these others were trying to usurp the space. The birds never touched, but they came within inches as each twisted and turned. Their long pointed wings and broad tails providing precise control. Finally, one bird settled onto the roof, chattering lightly, and the others dispersed. At that point, I suspected this was some kind of social interaction, a morning greeting.

Tree Swallow

My attention turned to the aspen grove, and the bird I had come to find. The “chebec, chebec, chebec, ….” drifted from deep in the trees. The Least Flycatcher was singing. This species is in the genus Empidonax,a group of small, drab birds, which look virtually identical and can be reliably separated only by their songs. This individual, less than six inches long, was probably sitting on a branch four or five feet off the ground, scanning for flying insects, and giving its incessant territorial chant. The remarkable thing was that he was well outside his normal breeding range.

Sound Recording of the Willow Flycatcher singing.

I first saw this species in Western Pennsylvania when I was in high school. It breeds north from the central Appalachians through Canada and west to the Rockies. A few breed in northeastern Washington, but this site at Conboy National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Washington is hundreds of miles out of its normal range.

I was curious to find this bird for I had a strange feeling of connection to it, almost like this little guy was a brother. Except for undergraduate school, I’d spent my first 60 years living in Eastern United States before moving west to Seattle. Since settling here, I’ve felt both out of place and yet extremely content. The flycatcher, also, didn’t seem to care if it was far from its regular haunts. Several dozen birders had heard his song over the last week. He was apparently here for the breeding season.

My left hand clutched the parabolic microphone pointing toward the sound, while my right hand held my binoculars in the ready position. The digital recorder was running while I searched the understory for this elusive bird. No one was allowed anywhere beyond these trails, and if I didn’t want human-made sounds in my soundtrack, I couldn’t move. My best chance to see this individual was if it flew and landed on a visible branch. 

White-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Sapsucker

Other birds were also singing on this early June morning. The elaborate warbles of a house wren came from the understory to my left, and a warbling vireo’s slurry notes drifted through the quaking leaves above me. White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Western Bluebirds, and Western Wood-Pewees also made their presence known. Headsets covered my ears, giving me a stereo concert of this forest patch at the edge of the wet savanna that covered most of this Refuge.

Suddenly, I realized a second Least Flycatcher was calling off to my left, so I turned the parabolic reflector in that direction to see if the sound would become more distinct. Yes, it definitely was a second individual. Both sexes sing in this species. The first part of the female’s “chebec” is slightly lower in pitch, but the second part is virtually identical. Males, though, are not evenly dispersed through suitable habitat but rather form clumps of small territories. It is like a classical lek system where the males all compete for females on a stage rather than be spread throughout the theater. My ears weren’t discerning enough to decide if this was a pair or two separate males. 

They have an exciting display, but I was there at the wrong time of day. For a short period after sunset, the male will climb up through the branches to the top of the canopy offering warbles, whits, and chebecs as he goes. He then performs a “flight song.” He flies up from the treetops for 30 seconds, singing non-stop, and then tumbles back down, much the way a butterfly might flutter. Of course, ornithologists think it has something to do with mating, but we don’t know the actual function of this flight song. In my imagination, I can only assume that the male goes high to become visible to a distant female who might be wandering through looking for a mate. 

A flash of brown zipped behind an aspen trunk and then landed on a dead branch a few feet off the ground. The Least Flycatcher looked off to my right, gazing up and down into the small opening under the aspens. A second later, he was gone, but a surge of energy stayed with me. This bird was living life wherever he was. 

The Aspen Grove at Conboy National Wildlife Refuge.

Dawn Chorus along Stossel Creek

The marsh along Stossel Creek in Western Washington had a wonderful dawn chorus in early May.
Wetland along Stossel Creek.

Droplets bounced from bow to bow, making light ringing sounds as they fell through the Western Hemlocks and Red Cedars. Although it didn’t appear to be raining right then, the built-up water in the trees still tumbled. Water in the Red Alders gave a little different sound in this pre-dawn light, but the songs of hundreds of Pacific Chorus Frogs dominated the dark. A wide, slow-moving portion of Stossel Creek extended for a hundred feet or more in front of me. There, grasses, bushes, and small trees grew in the wetland, the perfect habitat for these tiny anurans. The males will climb a grass stem or twig, puff out their gular sack and let forth with that song. Within five minutes, a Common Yellowthroat added its “witchy witchy witch” to the dawn chorus, and shortly an American Robin began his melodious song. The area was getting lighter, dawn was happening.

The Dawn Chorus along Stossel Creek a mile or two north of the Big Pond.

It would be another five minutes after that before I heard the long, raspy whistle of a Varied Thrush. His note lasted almost a second and stayed all at the same pitch; then, he paused before giving another note at a higher pitch. He continued this pattern, long pause, long note, either higher or lower than the previous, always different than the immediately prior one. For me, this bird symbolizes the thick coniferous forests, especially at mid-elevations, of Western Washington. I wasn’t sure they would be at Marckworth Forest in May, so this was a special treat. Their tune gives me an eerie feeling, one also of mystery and intrigue. Hearing it always fills me with envy, for I wish my house were among thick, giant conifers such that this bird sang around me each spring. But I’d found one and my heart rose with delight.

It was mid-May, and many residents and early migrants had begun breeding. Other migrants would be arriving from their southern wintering grounds over the next few weeks. The Common Yellowthroat winters well south of Washington but had come back in April. A Song Sparrow and a Red-winged Blackbird gave their unique melodies to this morning ensemble. The sparrow probably stayed here all winter, while the blackbird might have wandered in western Washington before moving back to these marshes.

The forests in the Stossel Creek valley are filled with Western Hemlocks, Western Hemlocks, and Douglas firs. It is wet forest typical of the Pacific Northwest.
The forest along Stossel Creek.

Behind me, the high pitch song of a Chestnut-backed Chickadee drifted in, and the energetic trill of a Pacific Wren filled the forest with cheeriness. Unfortunately, I’m losing my ability to hear the high notes of the chickadee. Age is catching up to me. Soon I will need to seek a hearing aid to continue listening to these birds, for spring without them is unthinkable. 

A Steller’s Jay gave his rattle, and I looked down to see what my phone thought had been calling. Last year, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology added song recognition to their Bird Identification app, Merlin. They had volunteers go through thousands and thousands of recordings, marking which songs belong to what species, and then used machine learning to teach the app. They even used a few recordings I had made. The app said that a Northern Flicker and a Sora had called, but I hadn’t caught either in this morning’s chorus. 

I’d been there almost 40 minutes when I shut down my recorder and wondered what the chorus here might be like in another few weeks when more migrants had arrived, and some of the residents might be less vocal as they concentrate on raising young. I’ll have to come back again. 

Oh, To Be a Northern Shoveler

Northern Shovelers were actively feeding on Central Pond at Union Bay in Seattle, Washington.

Their heads were underwater; occasionally, their eyes came above the surface, but mostly they stayed down. Somehow, they were getting breaths, but I couldn’t see how. True, their nostrils are near the base of the bill, and maybe only an instant is needed. These ducks, two males and a female, were swimming fast. The body plumage said Northern Shoveler. The males had cinnamon-brown sides, white in front and behind the cinnamon patch. The heads appeared black, showing, though, as green when the light was right, and their backs dark. The female was streaked brown and light, like so many female ducks. But I hadn’t seen their bills, those large spatula-like projections. Ornithologists created the genus Spatula for these and their three close relatives in honor of that bill.

I’d come to the Union Bay Natural Area at UW’s Horticulture Center to look for them and see if I could watch them feed on this April morning. During spring in Seattle, shovelers are often on the Central and Carp ponds. Most would be paired by this time and traveling as a unit or in small feeding groups. Finally, one raised its head entirely out of the water and showed that humungous projection. I always think that bill should cause them to fall over, but its structure makes it surprisingly light, and I suspect they have strong neck muscles. 

A pair of Northern Shovelers swim in a tight circle while feeding.

They use their bill to filter out food. These birds suck water through the front of their beaks and push it out through the lamellae on the sides. They specialize in small nektonic invertebrates, which is the scientist’s way of saying swimming critters. Probably, Daphnia and many other minute things fill the water column in these shallow ponds. These shovelers swam in straight lines, occasionally doing turns, moving their heads up and down in jerky motions. A few weeks ago, pairs were swimming in tight circles. That behavior probably stirs the crustaceans and other invertebrates, seeds, and microscopic vegetation up from the bottom, making them better for filtering. We’d had strong winds in the last couple of days, and the water column was probably well mixed. 

A female Northern Shoveler opens her mouth wide to show the lamellae that allow her to filter out microscopic organisms from the water column.
The fine lamellae on the bill of this female Northern Shoveler allow her to filter out small crustaceans and other microscopic food items from the water column.
A group of Northern Shovelers swim in an oval. Each is stirring the bottom with their feet and the one following can filter any food items stirred up.
Northern Shovelers swim in a wide oval, following the one in front to catch the stirred-up water.

Once, a year ago, on Carp Pond, I watched some shovelers swim in an oval. The oval swimming, as well as the circling, are cooperative feeding techniques. It is an ingenious way of working together, everyone benefits. They can exploit the stirred-up food items by following, filtering out the good pieces. For example, we filter out noodles and vegetables from soup by pulling a spoon full along the side of the bowl and letting the liquid drain out. These ducks suck in a mouthful of soupy pond water and then use their tongue to push the water out through their built-in sieve. 

A male Northern Shoveler actively preens while a female takes an bath in the water beyond him. These are probably paired for the coming breeding season.

At the eastern end of Carp Pond, I found a shoveler pair actively preening. The female floated in the water, using her bill to pull through the body, wing, and tail feathers, occasionally taking a vigorous splashing bath. The male stood on a log, using his bill to work all its feathers. This log must be a favorite perch for ducks. A week ago, a female shoveler had her bill tucked under back feathers on one end, two Green-winged Teal were preening in the middle, and a drake shoveler was on other end. 

I find it amazing that the skin on these ducks is dry. Water doesn’t get to their skin even when swimming. The tight barbules on each feather vein act like Gore-Tex, and the weaves are so close that water droplets can’t get through. The layers of feathers and the coating they put on their feathers make the plumage waterproof. A drop of crude oil on the plumage negates all this and allows water to seep through the plumage, reaching the skin. Birds that encounter an oil spill will vigorously try to preen off the oil. The oil is toxic, but often they die of hypothermal because of the water that reaches their skin, chilling them. Just a dime-size dot of oil may spell their death.

A male Northern Shoveler actively preens while a female sleeps. Two Green-winged Teal also care for their feathers while resting on the log at Union Bay.

Birds spend a lot of time each day taking care of their feathers. Probably, these two were well fed and preparing for an afternoon nap, if not the night. Once they felt they had thoroughly cleaned and straightened their feathers, it would be time to sleep. We do something similar before bed each night.

Anuran Chorus at Stossel Creek

Pacific Tree Frogs were in full chorus, and a few American Bullfrogs added to the performance. The marsh system along Stossel Creek provides ideal habitat for these species.

The frogs were in full chorus. Swamp stretched across the valley for a hundred yards and for a half-mile along Stossel Creek. A mixture of willows and grasses grew in the wetlands, and then a pond opened downstream from this spot. The loudness and diversity of their songs made me think that hundreds were singing simultaneously. These were Pacific Tree Frogs Pseudacris regilla, and I was trying to absorb that a tiny anuran, less than 2 inches long, could make that much sound.

They also go by the name Pacific Chorus Frog and hearing this choir made me think that chorus frog might be a better name. When one male begins to sing, any nearby male will jump right in and try to outsing the other. Each puffs out its vocal sack as it puts forth the song. This was not an organized chorus with all of them singing together, but rather each male was trying to out-compete the next. If he succeeds, a female may come his way. He needs to sing louder or differently to entice her to pay attention to him. 

In the distance, I noticed the deeper and more resonating call of an American BullfrogLithobates catesbeianus. This introduced species is a severe problem in Washington. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has listed it as an invasive species. Bullfrogs grow to be big. With their legs stretched out, they can be up to ten inches long and are voracious predators, eating anything they can catch. They were natives in Western Pennsylvania, and I searched for them along the shoreline of ponds near my parent’s farm. 

At fifteen minutes into my recording, a lull of ten seconds happened. Perhaps, one male needed a break to catch a snack, and all the rest followed, but I suspect it was more likely that one sensed a possible predator nearby, and they went silent. Eventually, one male frog couldn’t resist and croaked. The rest then started back up. Barred Owls are common in these lowland forests of the Pacific Northwest and will hunt these frogs. 

Tree frogs need to breed, though; these anurans sing even if it exposes them to the risk of being eaten. 

Dawn Chorus on Mary Ann Creek

A marsh along Mary Ann Creek in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington.

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.

A male Red-winged Blackbird.

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.

Wilson’s Snipe.

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. 

The habitat downstream is thick brush in the wetland and then upland forest and grasslands along the slope.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Newsletter.

The “Sher-rick” of a Great Gray Owl

A young Great Gray Owl sits on a branch in the Okanogan National Forest.
An owlet sat on a branch close to the trunk and stared down at me.

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.

The recording of the “sher-rick” call of a Great Gray Owlet.

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.

An adult Great Gray Owl flies in to feed the calling young owlet in the Okanogan National Forest.
An adult Great Gray Owl lands between two owlets and passes a vole to one young.

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 parent owl immediately leaves after passing the vole to the young that had been calling.
The parent Great Gray Owl left as soon as it passed the vole and was off to catch more food for these young.

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.

An adult Great Gray Owl flies into a tree with a vole in its mouth. It was feeding its young in the Okanogan National Forest. The young had been calling.
An adult Great Gray Owl flies in with a vole hanging from its mouth.

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.

A young owlet waits for its parent to return. It had hatched in the Okanogan National Forest and was still dependent on its parents for food.
The Great Gray Owl tapped its toes a few times and kept an eye on the surroundings but was not fed while we watched.
Two Great Gray Owl young sit on a branch in the Okanogan National Forest. One had been calling and one parent had just passed it some food.
Two Great Gray Owlets sit on a branch, one had just been fed, and it held the vole for a few minutes before gobbling it down.

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.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Society’s Newsletter.

The Flute-like Song of a Black-faced Solitaire

Black-faced Solitaires have a beautiful song, very flute-like in its tone. I made this recording at Mount Totumas in Western Panama.

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.

I could listen to him sing all day. 

The montaine forests of Central America are lush and cool. They are highly diverse with hundreds of tree species and provide habitat for numerous birds including the Black-faced Solataire.