The splash came from my right. A Neotropic Cormorant ran across the water, flapping its wings, trying to gain lift. It was coming along the shoreline and would pass our boat as we floated on the Rio Sararé in the Pantanal. They typically need to run into the wind, but this morning it was calm, and surprisingly it had taken off by coming right toward us.
These cormorants are compact, dense, and look like torpedoes. They are pursuit hunters, chasing down fish underwater. Their body, neck, and head are all hydrodynamic for the least drag possible. Their feet are set well back on their body; this makes them ideal for propulsion underwater but not the best for walking around on land. All four of their toes are connected by webbing, totipalmate feet, where a duck or goose only has three toes webbed.
I’d brought my GoPro on this trip in the hopes of doing some underwater filming. But unfortunately, the water here in the Pantanal of Brazil is high in tannins and organic matter, so nothing is visible a few feet out. So, no luck, but the athleticism of this bird taking off was a treat to watch.
To take off, the bird pushed hard down with both feet like it was trying to launch from the water’s surface. At the same time, it flapped its wings, the outer primaries hitting the water, helping to lift its body. It then drew both feet forward as far as possible and pushed hard on the water, flapping again. In essence, it was hopping as fast as it could while smacking the water with its wings. Finally, it gained enough altitude to fold back its feet and move just to wing beats.
The cormorant disappeared down the river. Neotropic Cormorants are smaller than the widespread Double-crested Cormorant of Northern America. They live all through Latin America and even extend into Southeast Texas. This is one of the most adaptable birds in the Western Hemisphere, ranging from sea level to some Andean Lakes at 5,000 meters.
Neotropics and Double-crested look much alike, and the size difference is often impossible to tell. Double-cresteds don’t occur in South America. The best characteristic to separate them is to look at the profile of their gular pouch, the yellowish area behind the bill, and at the top of their neck. On an adult Neotropic, this structure looks like a horizontal “V” with the bottom pointed backward and is less than 50% of the rest of the head. The V also has a thin white border along the back edge. In the Double-crested, the pouch is bigger and rounded rather than “V” shaped.
Farther down the river, a cormorant sat on a branch hanging over the river. Its webbed feet curled around the twig as the combination swayed slightly. In this morning sun, the feathers had a sheen to them. It didn’t fly as we cruised by.
A cobalt color zipped just above the ground and around the small building. It was big, maybe 2 meters across and half as long. I ducked left to go around the opposite side of the structure so perhaps the sun would be behind me. We were in the small community of Porto Jofre along the Rio Cuiaba in the Pantanal. There, on a cement water trough, at the end of the building, sat a Hyacinth Macaw.
It dipped its massive black bill into the water for a drink, then sat back up. This bird was even more giant than I’d imagined from my readings—at least a meter from its head to the tip of that long flowing tail. The body was chunky, cocker spaniel size, but with wings with a violet tinge. Bare yellow skin showed around the eye, and a little yellow hugged the base of the lower mandible.
Birdlife International lists this macaw as vulnerable, one notch below endangered. Their population has plummeted because of the pet trade and loss of habitat. Sadly, poachers might have captured 10,000 individuals during the 1980s for pets, and their numbers fell to an estimated 3,000 wild ones. The stronghold for this species is here in the Pantanal, and two other small groups, still declining, survive in East Amazonia and the Gerais. For a while, scientists listed it as endangered, but they think their numbers have somewhat stabilized right now in the Pantanal. Conservation initiatives and ecotourism have helped. Our Brazilian guide, Paulo, told us that the absence of ecotourism during the two years of severe Covid was problematic. But, at least we were here now, supporting the local economy.
The macaw drank a second time, and water dripped from the hook on the upper mandible when it raised its head. The bill was massive, maybe 3 or 4 inches from top to bottom at the back. The front edge of the lower mandible looked razor sharp. It could probably snip my finger off without any effort.
This parrot, the largest in the world, is tied closely to various palm trees, and they need that massive bill to crack the palm nuts. Here in the Pantanal, evidently, Attalea phalerata and Acrocomia totai are the two most crucial palm species. One book said the seed of Acrocomia was as hard as a stone, yet this bird can crack it with that bill. Apparently, tapirs eat the fallen fruit whole but don’t digest the nut, passing it through their digestive system and dispersing it to new areas. Macaws, though, crack the seed to get at the inside. These parrots will eat other things, including snails.
My eyes fell to its feet, sprawled across the cement. Two toes pointed forward and two backward, zygodactyl feet, and a smile came to my lips. I hadn’t thought of that term in a long time. Occasionally, my early career as a research ornithologist pops back out. These toe arrangements allow parrots to hold food in one foot while they use the bill to peel and crack a morsel. One of the nails was white while all the rest were black; it made me wonder if this bird had damaged its nail or if this was just normal variation. So many questions!
The hyacinth pivoted and shot into the air, its massive wings drawing down, lifting the bird several feet off the ground. It flew right in front of me. The yellow around the eye and along the lower mandible glowed in the sun, and the giant hooked beak projected down and back. Its feet were folded under its tail coverts, and the long tail flowed behind it. The underside of the primaries and secondaries looked grayish rather than the blue of the other feathers.
It landed in a tree across the opening, and the breath left my lungs. For some reason, I’d held it when the macaw took off. It sat beside its mate, and the two leaned forward, looking back at me. Adult Hyacinth Macaws are always paired, which is the most common way of seeing them. Paulo told me of a few places he knew about where we might see small flocks, but neither was scheduled for this trip. A good reason to come back.
A light breeze came in off Puget Sound, keeping the temperatures in the mid-60s on this August morning. I headed onto the fishing pier at Edmonds to see what birds might be around when a small bird floating just beyond the tideline stopped me. The tide was out, and little waves caused by the ferry lapped along the shore. The bird floated only a dozen feet from the edge. It was dark brown, stubby body and short bill. A Marbled Murrelet cruised in the shallows. I backtracked to walk down onto the sand.
Its plumage was transitioning from summer to lighter winter plumage. Overall, it seemed a dull brown, with no evidence of the brighter brown of a breeding adult. Perhaps this was young of the year. The chest and neck had mottled white and brown. The back and sides had white flecking. Scientists do offshore surveys in the late summer to determine how many young might have been produced. They can tell adults from juveniles quite well, but I wasn’t sure which this was.
Marbled Murrelets are endangered in Washington. Their populations have plummeted over the last 50 years, and this decrease seems mostly related to the loss of suitable nesting habitats. Surprisingly, these birds fly inland and nest high in the canopy of old-growth coniferous trees. They find a broad branch covered in mosses and lichens. They make a depression in the vegetation and lay a single egg. Then, both parents fly back and forth to Puget Sound or the ocean to feed and care for the egg and nestling. Some nests can be as far as 50 miles from the water.
This alcid shifted directions and began to swim parallel to the beach. Its bill had a small hook at the tip, and the nostril slit near the base was thin and long. The feathers were tight against the body, and a few water droplets clung to them, glistening in the sun. It looked plump, but I’d worried that being this close to shore was not a good sign. Might this bird be skinny, not in good health? Maybe, if it was a young bird, it was just learning the best places to fish. Once they leave the nest, it appears they are on their own, needing to find all their food themselves.
With the tide still receding, the murrelet had come into a small pool between two sandbars. It turned and started to head out to sea, but the water was too shallow to swim. Here it attempted a stumbling walk. Its legs are far back on its body, making walking difficult, so it raised itself on its legs and then plopped forward. After ten minutes, it was back in deep water and headed offshore.
“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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.