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 Complex Tune of a Yellow-breasted Chat

A Yellow-breasted Chat along Sinlahekin Creek.

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.

Sinlahekin Creek.

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.

Sinlahekin Valley has wide areas of riparian habitat that is ideal for Yellow-breasted Chats.

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.

A Yellow-breasted Chat sings in the top of a bush.

The Song of the Ruddy-Capped Nightingale-Thrush

The ethereal song of a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush at Mount Totumas in Western Panama.

A melancholic liquid song floated through the understory. Reinaldo and I had left the lodge at Mt. Totumas early that morning to see if we could catch the dawn chorus. The night insects had not yet completely shut down while the birds had begun to wake up when we heard this tune. After a short pause, a clear whistle drifted through next. Reinaldo whispered Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush. This montane forest was thick second-growth and ideal habitat for this member of the genus Catharus

This genus has twelve living species. Two, the Swainson’s Thrush and Hermit Thrush, breed in Western Washington, where I currently live. Those, too, have beautiful songs. However, this nightingale-thrush has a rich set of phrases that carry far. Sometimes they will sing more than 100 of them before taking a break. This one was putting on a good performance; fluty trills, whistles, warbles, and slurs kept filling my ears with delight.

Two other Catharus species breed at Mount Totumas, and the Swainson’s Thrush migrates through on its way back north from its wintering grounds in the Andes. The Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush breeds at lower elevations and the Black-billed at higher. The Ruddy-capped fills this in-between range on these mountains. Reinaldo took me up into La Amistad International Park to find the Black-billed, and we hiked down to the flood plain of the Rio Colorado to see the Orange-billed.

The diverse phrases of the Ruddy-capped continued to float around us. It sounded like a woodwind quartet, right here. Songbirds create their song in the syrinx, which lies at the base of the trachea and top of the two bronchi. With an elaborate set of muscles, they can control the tension of the wall of each bronchus. As the air passes over this tissue, it oscillates, creating each note. Remarkably, a bird, like this thrush, can control the syrinx at the top of each bronchus separately, allowing them to make different notes in each. Perhaps, this individual is alternating sides or even using both simultaneously to harmonize with himself. 

I could listen to this melody all day.

The Montane Forest at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Preserve.
The montane forest at Mount Totumas where Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes live. The elevation here is about 6500 feet. Lower down, the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush nests and higher up is where the Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush is found.

The Call and Courtship of Resplendent Quetzals

The two-note whistles came from the forest up the hill. The first note was slightly higher than the second, both were slurred, and they came in rapid succession. A Resplendent Quetzal was giving his territorial call on this April morning. A fainter reply could barely be discerned in the distance by a second male.

These altitudinal migrants had returned to the Westside of the Cordillera de Talamanca in the last few weeks. They spend October through March on the Caribbean side and return to the western side just as the rains begin in April. Here, they court, find a mate, and wait for the flush of fresh fruit that comes with the showers. I’d come to the Mount Totumas Cloud Forest in Western Panama in hopes of finding these magnificent trogons. 

Nest cavity for a Resplendent Quetzal
A nest site with the tail of a male Resplendent Quetzal sticking out the hole.

I imagined this quetzal sitting on a high branch, his long upper tail coverts flowing back and forth in the light breeze. His brilliant coloration, a golden-green iridescence, should make him stand out, but these birds blend into these forests quite well. Although I’d seen several individuals in my week here, I stood, studying every branch, hoping I might spot this one.

Jeffrey — the lodge owner — and I had come out before first light to listen to the forest wake up, and now we’re headed back. The forest was still full of sounds. Black-faced Solitaires, Flame-colored Tanagers, Slate-throated Redstarts all sang along with many things I still couldn’t identify. The screeches of a Three-wattled Bellbird seemed to overpower everything else. Finally, we gave up the search for the quetzal and continued down the trail.

The montane forest in Western Panama where the Resplendent Quetzal comes to breed in April and May each year.

We had gone a half-mile more when Jeffrey halted, whispering quetzal and pointing directly over our heads. Almost immediately, “keow kowee keow” came from above us as some feathers began to move in the leaves. “Courtship display,” murmured Jeffrey. Males do a courtship flight, often flying above the canopy or they may chase a female through the canopy. Two birds were above us, but the vegetation was thick; they appeared to stay in the trees. Active vocalization between them lasted over a minute as I craned my neck to look straight up.

When they stopped, “Wow” seemed to be the only thing I could say. Jeffrey nodded, and we continued back toward the lodge, absorbed by this spectacle. 

Resplendent Quetzal
Resplendent Quetzal looks back over its shoulder. The long feathers are specialized upper tail coverts that grow exceptionally long in males, and they use them in their courtship of females.

Listen to other sounds from the forests at Mount Totumas on Spotify.

The Courtship of a Male Ruddy Duck

A male Ruddy Duck in full breeding plumage at Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands

Ch-chi-chuuruur came from my right, and I froze in my tracks, for I’d never heard that sound before. Coots, blackbirds, and Pied-billed Grebes had been calling since I arrived at Teal Lake twenty minutes earlier, and a Song Sparrow sang to my left. A scan of the lake had found Buffleheads, Lesser Scaups, and Blue-winged Teals. The Ch-chi-chuuruur drifted across the water as I crept toward it, binoculars ready.

Teal Lake
Teal Lake sits in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington. Numerous wetland birds nest there and many others use the surrounding habitats.

Teal Lake sits in a depression on the Okanogan Highlands, probably carved out by the Pleistocene glaciers. It is nestled between gently rolling hills covered with conifers. The blue water glistened on that June morning, and lush marsh habitat formed a wide literal zone around much of this fifteen-acre lake. The birds here always seem to put on a show.

Crouching down, I spotted the source of that strange sound, a male Ruddy Duck. Two females followed him as he swam right toward me, again doing that call. A second male lurked a dozen yards behind the three. This was the bubbling display that I’d read about. The male bobbed his head a few times and then dipped his bill while slightly extending his neck and head. The throat expanded while the sound radiated. He was courting the females. Then, with a sudden lunge, he ran across the water, wings flapping and hitting the surface, before settling back down and doing the call again. At first, I thought maybe I’d spooked him, but then it occurred to me that this was probably part of the display. A few seconds later, he did it again as he came closer and closer toward me.

Male Ruddy Duck on Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.
A male Ruddy Duck sits in the Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands. They get a sky blue bill and red body plumage for the breeding season.

The male was in full breeding regalia. His bill was bright sky blue, an extra intense vibrance. The top of his head was black; he had a crisp white cheek patch and reddish back and side feathers. He held his stiff tail flat to the water. Ruddy Ducks aren’t like most ducks, acquiring their breeding plumage in the fall. Instead, these birds wait until spring, when they begin the courtship process to find a mate. 

This male ran across the water again, coming between a few cattails and the bank. He began to cruise along a channel coming even closer to me. The females seemed hesitant to follow, so I slowly backed away from the edge and gave them their space. 

As I strolled back toward my car, I continued to hear the Ch-chi-chuuruur from that male.

Female Ruddy Duck on Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.
A female Ruddy Duck cruises at the edge of the cattails in Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.

Listen to other bird songs from the Okanogan Highlands on Spotify: