A cattail marsh with a small pond in its middle extended upstream, and a swamp of willows and cattails ran downstream. I stood on a narrow causeway where Mary Ann Creek ran through a culvert under the dirt road listening to the morning chorus. It was diverse, energetic, and loud. Right then, a Wilson’s Snipe was dominating the cacophony with its persistent jick-jack. The snipe must have been sitting someplace and letting everyone know that he or she was there. Both sexes will give this call, and it is a component of pair formation and territorial defense. I tried to ignore the snipe and concentrated on identifying the other birds.
Mary Ann Creek runs through a gentle valley with mostly grasslands covering the slopes on both sides. This area of the Okanogan Highlands is just south of the Canadian border and often filled with birds not found west of the Cascades. Here, along the valley’s south side, a narrow strip of conifers and aspens grow on the lower slope providing a different upland habitat.
Three Red-winged Blackbirds were perched high in willows right along the dirt track and periodically gave their musical song. They seemed to ignore my presence and concentrated on announcing theirs. A Eurasian Collared-Dove cooed in the distance, probably back in one of the Ponderosa Pines. The melodic tune of a Song Sparrow and the fitz-bu of a Willow Flycatcher filled out the initial ensemble.
A few minutes later, the long-drawn-out whistle of a Western Wood-Pewee caught me by surprise, and I turned to stare into the small coppice of trees along the edge. Almost immediately, a California Quail called from in that direction. I raised my binoculars to scan all the trees and see what else might be there. Flickers and bluebirds had been in the patch when I’d been here before, and other things could have easily been there.
The sweet, sweet, sweet ti ti ti to soo of a Yellow Warbler and the complex trill of a House Wren brought my attention back to the willows. A brief chatter made me think of Northern Catbirds. I wished it to sing, but it didn’t. I often find them farther down this road, where the willows are thick and dense. An American Coot made a brief squawk and then went silent. No rails, though, made their presences known. A Common Yellowthroat rounded out my list of vocal feathered friends. Occasionally a male Yellow-headed Blackbird will be in the cattails, but none today. They are common in a more extensive marsh downstream from this site.
It seemed like I heard twelve, maybe thirteen species in the ten minutes I stood: a fine chorus for the day.
I cupped my hands around my ears. The sweet evening song of a Swainson’s Thrush drowned out all but the faint babble of the creek down the short draw. A distant second one made an echo of the first. Their opening whistles and spiral flourishes were spectacular. At any other time, I would have stopped and listened, but there was another sound I was straining to hear.
The previous evening, Julie, Craig, and I had come along this trail in Okanogan National Forest just as final twilight had been fading. The “sher-rick” call that repeated every few seconds came from a patch of Douglas firs and lodgepole pines across a small creek. We searched for the source of the sound for thirty minutes, but the light was mostly gone, and we could detect no movement. Craig and I had come back, but right then, all I could hear was the thrushes.
This was prime habitat for the gray ghost of the northern boreal forest. Great Gray Owls are large birds, looking bigger than a Great Horned Owl, although actually weighing a little less. A female may approach three pounds, and a male a little over two. They prefer mature forests with numerous meadows, bogs, and small openings spread through the trees. This species breeds throughout Alaska, Canada, and across Northern Europe and Asia, but only in some high elevation dry forests in the Western United States. These rodent eaters are often quite elusive, making them difficult to find. They occasionally fly out of their remote homes in winter, but my searches had consistently failed to find one.
After moving in the direction of the previous night’s screech, I put a pair of headsets over my ears and pointed my microphone into the woods. Its parabolic reflector would amplify any sound. There it was, the “sher-rick” call of an owlet, persistent but faint, and a little off to our left, and then it stopped. We crept in that direction, scanning up and down trees, looking for a shadow or blob that might be a roosting owlet. Young Great Grays will jump out of their nests when only a few weeks old. Much like rambunctious teenagers, they strive for independence well before they can fly or care for themselves. After tumbling to the earth, the young owls will climb leaning trees to get off the ground and then hop from branch to branch back into the canopy. Usually, they sit right against the trunk on a horizontal branch, waiting for their parents to feed them.
Twice more over the next half hour, I put the headsets on to refine the direction toward the begging. Finally, after moving several hundred yards back into the forest, we heard the whining child without the aid of the parabolic reflector. Craig and I eased toward a small meadow with a clump of larches, firs, and pines surrounding it. I stepped around a six-inch lodgepole pine and scanned every tree in front of me, up and down the trunks.
Craig, who stood tight by my left shoulder, tapped my arm and pointed almost straight up. There, forty feet up a pine, sat a downy owlet on a small side branch. It was right against the trunk as expected, his clawed talons curling over the branch and his eyes looking straight down at us. I started the sound recorder, set the microphone down, pointed into the coppice, and focused my long lens on the owlet. As my camera began to capture pictures, Craig again tapped my shoulder, pointing this time across in front of me.
Two owlets, both with slightly longer wing and tail feathers than the first, sat about a few feet apart on a horizontal branch nearly forty feet up, and one gave that “sher-rick” call while they both stared right at us. Their dark eyes gave the impression of curiosity and amazement in seeing these strange two-legged creatures that had walked into their home. All three seemed totally unafraid of us. As I focused my camera, an adult flew silently into the frame, gliding up to land beside the screeching owlet where it passed a vole from its mouth to the young and then dropped off the branch flying back through the forest. The ghost had come and gone.
The breath slowly left my lungs as I continued to stare at the one with a vole hanging from its mouth like a long piece of thick brown licorice. These owls are not rare in their prime habitat, but because these dry interior montane forests are remote and inaccessible, few people have the chance to see one. Adults hunt from perches, and a perfect hunting site is a short tree on the edge of a meadow where the bird can scan for rodents. The facial feather disk on their oversized head directs sound to their acute ears, and they hunt almost entirely by hearing the prey. These owls can plunge through a foot or more of snow to snare a mouse or vole in winter. Pocket gophers burrow through the soil and are another favorite food.
After a minute, the owlet wolfed down the vole in one giant swallow and then flew behind trees to land precariously on the top of a subalpine fir, where it swayed back and forth in the breeze. Its sibling followed it back into the forest. The adult came in again, landing in the middle of the thicket where it glared right at me while another vole hung from its mouth. Then the second adult arrived also with something in its mouth. It was as if these two predators had flown down to the local corner store for a snack of fresh live meat for their children.
For 30 minutes, I stood silently watching while Craig snuck to my right to see if he could spot where the other two had gone. An adult came in at least twice more but never to the one above my head. That baby yawned a few times, stretched its wings, flexed one or the other foot, but never moved. Occasionally, it became bored of us and stared into the forest. It never begged or seemed distressed that a parent didn’t come to visit. Finally, the light was fading, and we decided to back out of this place and leave the owls to their own. As we strolled through the forest, the occasional screeches from the owlet pushed us along, and a cloud of mosquitos buzzed around our heads. Neither of us thought to swat at those that feasted on our blood.
An hour-long recording of the evening serenade of the two Swainson’s thrushes mentioned early in this essay can be heard on Spotify or you can find it on Amazon and on Apple Music.
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 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.
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.
The drifting fog produced a ghostly look in the canopy, and dripping water filled the forest with a tingling sound. Dawn was just starting at Mount Totumas. Bromeliads, ferns, and mosses draped over branches, and dense bushes covered the understory. I stood mesmerized, my hand stuck in my pockets, eyes unfocused, but ears at their peak. Bird songs were everywhere in this Panamanian jungle.
The forest was waking. This was early April, and the valley was in transition from the dry season to the wet. Rains over the previous few days had sparked the community; spring was here. A Flame-colored Tanager serenaded me from the treetops. His raspy voice sounded like he had a sore throat. Up the hill, a Black-faced Solitaire began his melodious song. The oboe, clarinet & flute-like notes were sweet, delicate, and made me think a woodwind quartet was nearby. He was using both syrinxes to produce that complex tune. Right then, I cupped my hands around my ears so I could hear him more clearly. Perhaps, the solitaire sat a dozen feet up in a tree, bending his head back slightly as he projected that melody.
I’d left the lodge 45 minutes earlier to hike into the forest, through the dark jungle, walking slowly but deliberately, picking my way, flashlight on dim and partly covered. This little rise, near the Old Mexican Elm, was a perfect place to stand, just listening. Here moderately mature second-growth forest surrounded three-quarters of the compass, and younger trees grew in the other quadrant. The birds should be diverse.
Right then, the wavy notes of a Slate-throated Redstart, high in pitch and rapid, came from just into the forest. I moseyed over to look for this bird. It should have a blackish head and back, and its belly yellowish; it would be a small bird, probably flitting through the understory. Falling water droplets kept twitching leaves, and I could not spot this warbler.
The monotonous notes of a Resplendent Quetzal resonated from farther into the dense vegetation. This altitudinal migrant would have just come back to this side of the mountain. During the dry season, this species spends its time in the lowlands of the Caribbean, returning here to the Pacific slope just before the rainy season. Now they would be pairing and finding a nest cavity. Probably, he was using that call to defend a territory and court a female. The flush of fruit that comes with the rains will be the source of food for their nestlings. They particularly like the relatives of avocados because of their high nutrient content.
A bellowing wail came from my left. A Howler Monkey was complaining that it needed more sleep. Every morning when the alarm went off, my wife used to say, “Just five more minutes.” I’d then have to wake her. The troop went quiet for a little while before they began to sing their morning wake-up call. The locals have a saying, “The monkeys call the rain.” Perhaps, the Pacific would win out on that day, and more rain would fall.
I began to stroll up the trail, my hands back in my pockets. The monkeys continued to bellow, the tanager projected his raspy voice, and the Quetzal tooted. Several birds that I didn’t recognize chimed into the chorus. A chatter possibly made by a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper and some high-pitched buzzes rose in front of me, so much to figure out.
Then, finally, almost 18 minutes after the chorus started, a Three-wattled Bellbird let out its first squawk, much louder than it needed to be.
Roger Lake in the Okanogan National Forest. The area burned a decade ago and new growth of pines, firs, and spruce are coming up throughout the forest. May 25th. (Thomas Bancroft)
My neck hurt. I’d been staring straight up for the last ten minutes, trying to find the source of the haunting sound that was radiating down. A tremulous “hu-hu-hu” would come from one direction and then another. Wilson’s Snipes were winnowing overhead. I stood by the marsh surrounding Roger Lake in the North Cascades. It was late May, and these birds were actively defending territories and courting. Males, in particular, will fly to a high altitude, then dive, spreading their tail. The sound is made by the wind moving across their outer rectrices, both during the dive and when leveling out. It is a creepy sound and just beautiful to hear. I’d stopped at this place in the hopes of catching it.
Finally, I spotted one. The bird circled in a broad arc around the southern end of the lake. As long as I kept my eyes on it, I could follow it. It was 150 to 200 feet above the ground, doing a gradual dive while making that sound, and then climbing again. When I blinked, I’d lose it. After spotting one a few times, I stopped trying and just listened to the chorus happening all around me.
The Wilson’s Snipe popped up on the down log along the edge of the marsh at Wiley Slough. Its long bill stuck down and its right eye glared right at us. (Thomas Bancroft)
The fight had been going on all day. The Caribbean was not about to give up. It had dominated the Cordillera de Talamanca since last fall. But in early April, the Pacific thought that its turn had come and was pushing hard to bring new weather patterns to these mountains.
All morning, the high country to the east had clouds draping over the ridges and peaks, then starting to flow down the Rio Colorado Valley, but the white blanket never entirely made it to the Lodge at Mount Totumas. The Caribbean had lost its oomph. On that day, we had hiked deep into the montane forests, continually watching the changing weather conditions, wondering if the rain would come. First, the sun shone bright, and then clouds would move in. The trees took on a subdued look, soft in color and texture. Then the white blanket would withdraw back up the valley. The shadows grew dark and refined. During those sunny periods, the air had tasted dry, but with that filtered light, it was sweet with moisture. The birds seemed to increase their chorus during those cloudy periods.
In the afternoon, the sky darkened out to the west, rolling clouds moved up the valley but petered out before they reached us. The forest would go from calm, no breeze, to rustling such that we no longer could hear the birds. Then as quickly as it came, things would switch back to tranquil. We never had rain.
Now, the light was fading; the sun had moved far to the west, over the Pacific, beyond our view. But that western body had one final push. Massive cumulonimbus clouds grew to great heights out there. They began to move toward the Rio Colorado but stalled just beyond the ridge in that direction. The thunderheads continued to roll and tower, occasional flashes coming from their interior.
Bird calling diminished except for a three-wattled bellbird that wanted to make sure we hadn’t forgotten him. The night insects tuned up, filling the air with their raspy sounds. The western sky turned color. Subdued blues became red then pink, fading gradually to black. The definition of the foliage changed, disappearing. The world darkened. The evening howls from the monkeys resonated one last time as they prepared for bed.
I had been standing on the lodge’s deck for more than an hour, mesmerized by the unfolding action. The air was fresh, moist, full of vigor. Life seemed vibrant here. The sounds intense but soft, the light intriguing. This was the tropics in all its glory.
Inside, dinner was coming to the tables, time to leave this world and watch through the large glass panes.
On October 23rd 2019 I will be making a presentation on my birding trips to these cloud forests of western Panama. We will meet at the Mountaineers building on Sandpoint Way in Seattle. I will also discuss a new journey I’m planning for April 2020 to this area.