Posts Tagged ‘Okanogan’

17
Apr 22

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.

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3
Jul 20

An Unexpected Encounter

A bull moose emerges from the cattails along Forde Lake in Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

A bull moose emerges from the cattails along Forde Lake in Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The witchety-witchety-witchety came from the cattails bordering the lake. An eight-foot band of emergent vegetation formed a green ribbon that highlighted the open water. A Common Yellowthroat was singing not a dozen feet from my car’s open window. It was 4:45 AM, and I had just left my campsite to bump along this dirt track. The sun wouldn’t rise for another quarter-hour, and it would be much longer before the warm rays hit Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Valley.

The singing yellowthroat was hidden in the thick stems, but its song was loud and clear. The background sounds of blackbirds, ducks, flycatchers, and kingbirds enhanced the solo, and I slowly opened my door so that I could fetch my sound recording equipment from the backseat. I took two tentative steps toward the backdoor when loud splashes erupted from the lake.

The Bull Moose begins to trott up the hill and away from Forde Lake where it had been feeding on wetland plants. Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Bull Moose begins to trot up the hill and away from Forde Lake, where it had been feeding on wetland plants. Sinlahekin Natural Area, Okanogan. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

There, not a hundred yards away, a bull moose thrashed in a small cove. He galloped along the edge of the cattails, water coming partway up his side, and splashes going above his head. His palmate antlers looked half grown on this mid-June morning. My first thoughts were to chastise myself for not scanning the lake before I opened the door. Then I wondered if I froze, might he calm down and go back to feeding. I reached back into the front to grab my telephoto lens as the beast plowed into the thick cattails, totally disappearing.

These ungulates moved into Washington in only the last century. I knew they were in the Selkirk Mountains but hadn’t realized they were on the east side of the Cascades in Okanogan County.  A few years back, a census by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that over 5,000 moose now live in this state. Their highest density is in the northeast. Although sometimes taken by wolves, the biggest threat to Washington’s moose seems to be the increase in ticks. The warming climate has allowed tick numbers to explode, and a significant infestation on an individual moose can suck enough blood to affect its condition.

The moose jogs through the tall grass of Sinlahekin Natural Area as it heads in the hills and away from Forde Lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The moose jogs through the tall grass of Sinlahekin Natural Area as it heads in the hills and away from Forde Lake. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

This male exploded out of the cattails and onto the grass-covered plain that rose from the lake. He stopped briefly to look back at me, and then trotted along at a brisk pace, surprisingly graceful for such a gangly looking member of the deer family. Their legs are extremely long, allowing them to wade in deep water for aquatic plants and reach high into bushes and trees when they browse. Once, when I was in Alaska, I watched a moose and her large calf graze. They had to walk on their knees to be able to reach the grass. Aquatic plants and browse are their primary foods.

He moved at a diagonal up the hill. This guy probably stood five feet at the shoulders, maybe more, and weighed at least a thousand pounds. I kept snapping photographs, even though it was still dark, and I could only see a silhouette in the images. Maybe, I’d be able to pull some more detail out of the files. His dewlap hung under his neck, and that sizeable muscular nose gave him the unique look of this species. His antlers were covered in velvet, and I wondered how big they’d grow this summer.

He ran to the edge of some sagebrush, now a quarter-mile away, and paused. His magnificent profile made me hold my breath, hoping he might turn back. But no, he disappeared then over the rise. I stood for the longest time watching where he’d gone before getting back into my car. The Yellowthroat had stopped singing.

The moose approaches a patch of sagebrush up the hill from Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Natural Area of Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The moose approaches a patch of sagebrush up the hill from Forde Lake in the Sinlahekin Natural Area of Okanogan County. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

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26
Jun 20

A Mother’s Concern

The Mule Deer stood like a stature on the crest of the hill above Mary Anne Creek. Her glare was intense and her ears cocked forward. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Mule Deer stood like a statue on the crest of the hill above Mary Anne Creek. Her glare was intense and her ears cocked forward. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Her black eyes glared down the hill, and her face muscles were taught. She had her two large ears cocked forward, pointing directly at me. Just her neck and head were above the dense prairie vegetation, and a few grass stems waved in front of her eyes. I’d been working along the edge of Mary Anne Creek looking for birds when a strange feeling made me turn and look up the thirty-foot bank. This mule deer stared down at me, looking more like a statue than something alive.

The Okanogan is a hunting area, and even though this was mid-June, I was surprised she hadn’t taken off at first sight of a human. I whispered to my two friends, “Look up on the hill.” The grass was thick, maybe two feet high, and a few lupins and daisies bloomed amongst the stems. At 10:30 AM, I’d would have expected her to be bedded down, resting away the day. 

The two small ears of a fawn appeared in the grass as the mother Mule Deer continued to stare at me. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The two small ears of a fawn appeared in the grass as the mother Mule Deer continued to stare at me. Mary Anne Creek, Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Both mule and white-tailed deer live in the Okanogan Highlands. This individual had the large ears and whiter face typical of mule deer. Her ears seemed to flex a little, and she took a short but tentative step forward. It made me freeze even more and begin to scan in front of her. Sure enough, a few dozen feet closer to me was some movement in the grass. Then two small ears started to show and a rump, too. A fawn rose from a napping spot and moved up the hill toward the doe. The little one was cantering, her front showing with each bound forward. I watched to see if a second one appeared.

The fawn began to bound up the hill toward the doe who was standing above Mary Anne Creek in the Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The fawn began to bound up the hill toward the doe who was standing above Mary Anne Creek in the Okanogan Highlands. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

Often, does have two fawns, but first-time mothers may only have one. She looked healthy, but nothing gave me a hint of her age. This would be a Rocky Mountain mule deer, one of ten subspecies found across western North America. West of the Cascades, where I live, is the Columbian black-tailed version. Mule deer numbers have decreased in the Okanogan over the last few decades, and the reasons are unclear. Scientists think that the increase in white-tailed deer in eastern Washington has allowed a growth in cougar populations, and these cats apparently take more mule deer than expected based on the abundance of the two deer species. 

As the fawn approached her mother, the doe’s face seemed to relax; her ears turned backward, but yet she maintained her glare at me. Rows of white spots ran up the fawn’s back. It must have been pretty young, and I wished for a better view. The two quietly disappeared over the hill, and all that remained was waving grass stems in the mid-morning sun.

The Mule Deer relaxed her ears as her fawn approached her side but she kept her eyes fixed on me. (G. Thomas Bancroft)

The Mule Deer relaxed her ears as her fawn approached her side but she kept her eyes fixed on me. Mary Anne Creek, Okanogan Highlands (G. Thomas Bancroft)

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