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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Eye of the Beholder

As I stood at the edge of a small estuarine inlet near Conway, WA, I looked out over a sparsely vegetated tideland toward the shimmering waters of Puget Sound.  Beyond the jumble of drift logs, mud, crisscrossing sloughs and salt-tolerant plants, a cacophony of bird voices could be heard emanating from the open water.  I could see the birds as well, although the intervening distance made my eyes perceive the mass of feathered bodies as a single large organism rather than thousands of individuals.  Occasionally the voices were muffled by the sound of many pairs of large feet slapping loudly and repeatedly against the water’s surface.  This was always followed by the distinct honks of airborne Trumpeter Swans approaching, passing overhead and then continuing inland to feed in the fertile fields of the Skagit Valley.

Trumpeter Swans are legally protected by both the State of Washington and the Federal Government.  This protection allows the enormous, white birds to move from their night haven on the water to their daytime feeding grounds in relative safety.  They have earned their free pass for the dubious distinction of having been nearly eradicated by overhunting and lead poisoning in the recent past.  Watching Trumpeter Swans fly overhead, it boggles my mind that it took a legal decree to prevent humans from killing them until they existed no more.  Is it that my sense of aesthetics is so different from my fellow humans, or is grace and beauty completely obscured when viewed through the sights of a gun?

As the sun rose higher in the sky, birds less protected than Trumpeter Swans began to make the journey inland to their feeding grounds.  I had been hearing the concussive reports of shotguns since I had arrived in the Skagit Valley, and I had no reason to believe I would not see what I most wished I wouldn’t.  Decoys littered the fields, and men in camouflage were encountered at every turn.  But it was a particularly cruel twist of fate that the “preserve” in which I was standing, and in which no hunting was allowed, had an excellent view of the farm fields to the west where no such restrictions existed.

An enormous flock of Snow Geese took to the air.  They gained altitude much more rapidly than the heavier-bodied Trumpeter Swans as they headed north toward their feeding grounds.  When they reached the dike separating the farm field to the west from the tidelands beyond, they had reached a height that I believed no shotgun could reach.  As the geese passed over the dike, their chorus of calls was temporarily drowned out by a series of explosions.  Blast after blast came from the farm field, and I could hear the sound of shot slicing through the air as it traveled upward.  After several seconds of this, with no sign of any bird being hit, I thought my original assumption of the safety of their altitude was correct.  One last blast made clear the error of my judgment.

A goose on the outer limit of the formation suddenly faltered.  Her wing, that only moments before had been solid white with a black tip, crumpled as a swath of red appeared and spread in the middle.  Her forward momentum collapsed as she moved first in an arc, and then straight downward toward the ground below her.  Her good wing flapped uselessly, while her broken wing trailed like a tangled and ineffective parachute behind her.  Her eyes were wide open, and her beak opened and closed as she continued to draw breath after agonized breath while plummeting to the earth some 200 feet below.  I watched her all the way down.  She still lived when she passed out of sight behind the dike to the west, and I heard the muffled impact of her feathered body as it collided with solid ground.  I hoped that noise had heralded the end of her suffering.

As camouflaged men with guns converged on the spot in which the goose had fallen, I turned to leave.  On the way to the car I passed a group of four middle-aged men, all in camouflage, who had just watched the same event that I had witnessed.  They looked off in the direction that the goose had fallen with broad smiles on their faces. The look I had seen in the eyes of the dying goose was still fresh in my mind, and the smiles on the faces of the men combined with the terrified look of the goose to create a disturbing paradoxical image.  Now, a few days later, I still can’t shake the image.  I have a feeling it will be with me for some time to come.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Winter Visitors

For the past week, my yard has been full of avian activity.  I opted against the usual fall practice of raking up fallen leaves and cedar fronds, not because of laziness, but because of a naturalist's contempt for the practice.  Trees take up nutrients from the soil and when they drop their leaves, they return some of what they have borrowed.  It's an elegant system, and one in which I would rather not interfere.  Although my bi-pedal mammalian neighbors may not appreciate my stance on the matter, my bi-pedal avian neighbors certainly do.

The avian activity that I mentioned earlier has been directly related to my lack of yard maintenance.  On a nearly daily basis I have looked out my back door to find a dozen or more Varied Thrushes picking energetically through the leaf litter in search of a meal.  These birds spend their summers at higher altitude in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.  They feed and raise their young by picking through the litter on the forest floor for invertebrates and foraging a little higher for a variety of berries.  In the fall they move to lower elevations to avoid heavy snowfall.  It's much harder to pick through leaf litter when you have to dig through several feet of snow to reach it.

So imagine the disappointment a flock of thrushes must feel when they arrive in the lowlands to discover nothing but a bunch of yards that have been completely cleared of leaf litter.  They aren't really worm-pullers like their close cousin the robin, so a vast sea of grass has no real appeal to them.  They are forest birds and they need something that at least remotely resembles a forest floor.  I figure the least I can do is make them feel welcome by leaving the table set on the little patch of earth for which I am responsible.  In the end, it's a win-win situation for me and the birds.  I don't have to rake the yard, and I don't feel any guilt from the neighbors because I look out and see a dozen gorgeous thrushes thanking me for not doing what society has come to expect.  After all, I feel that the thrushes have a much better grasp on the natural order of things than do my neighbors with their immaculate lawns.   

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Night Flier

I spent a few minutes after work last night wandering around in a greenbelt about four blocks from my house.  It was pitch black, so I was navigating by flashlight.  As I walked along the narrow trail that runs the length of the nicely wooded patch, I was carrying a small wooden box.  The box had wire screens over its two access holes to prevent its occupant from exiting prematurely.  There was no sound or feeling of movement from the box as I carried it, but I knew a tense little being was in there, waiting to see what would happen next.

As I moved deeper into the greenbelt, my flashlight beam fell on the broad trunk of a large Douglas Fir Tree.  I walked to the base of the tree and shined the flashlight beam upward, making a note that there did not appear to be any whitewash or other signs that an owl might be perching in the tree on a regular basis.  It was well over 100 feet tall, with plenty of thick greenery starting about 30 feet up.  Shorter Big Leaf Maples, alders and cedars surrounded it.  It would be a perfect launching point.

I stood in front of the tree and I positioned the flashlight so its beam lit up the trunk.  Holding the box up in front of me, I slowly opened it and I suddenly felt a small decrease in its weight.  A furry blur came to an abrupt stop in the beam of my flashlight, and I was face to face with a Northern Flying Squirrel that was now clinging to the trunk of the tree.

The squirrel paused for a moment as if the sudden feeling of freedom was a little overwhelming.  I saw him clearly in that instant.  I absorbed every detail of his velvety soft fur, the loose folds of skin between fore and hind limbs, the large nocturnal eyes and the horizontally flattened tail that would act as his rudder as he glided from tree to tree.  He had been treated for a broken leg he had suffered in the jaws of a house cat, but looking at him now you would never suspect that he had spent the last several weeks in a state of convalescence.  He was beautiful, intensely alert and radiating the electric energy of a lightning bolt as he absorbed his change in circumstances.  His instincts kicked in and he scampered quickly to the opposite side of the tree- a motion his kind repeats at the end of every glide just in case their flight has been followed by an owl or other nighttime predator.  He was out of my sight, but I heard the soft scratching of his claws on the tree trunk as he scampered upward into the protective arms of the fir.  I smiled as the sound faded into the darkness, and then I left the greenbelt to the flying squirrel and his fellow creatures of the night.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Return of Big Smoky

I was awakened this morning by the repeated, anxious-sounding vocalizations of my cat Otis.  All three of my cats have a surprising repertoire of sounds, most of them not even remotely resembling the classic kitty “meow.”  This morning Otis was in full song, throwing out churrs, soft yowls and things that can only be described as somewhat squeaky grunts.  It was a familiar pattern, but one that I listened to with some disbelief since, in my mind, Otis had no reason to be making it.  He is a persistent little guy though, and when he came to the window right next to the bed and continued his vocal alarm I finally relented and looked outside.  What I saw made the words, “No way!” escape involuntarily from my mouth.

The sounds Otis was making have always been associated with his seeing another cat outside.  More specifically, he makes the sounds when he sees a cat that is waiting to be fed.  Otis’s own story is intimately tied to a group of lost feline souls that were abandoned when a senior citizen cat hoarder that lived in the alley behind us was taken away to live in a retirement home.  The story is filled with pain and tragedy, but is interspersed with occasional happy endings.  I will tell it some day, but for now you need only know that after the cat hoarder left, my wife and I awoke to a yard filled with 16 cats.  We spent the next four years trying to correct the wrong that had been done to these animals.  At the end of those four years, many of the cats had been captured and adopted out to loving homes, some had been killed by cars, some were trapped and euthanized due to disease and some simply disappeared.  The only cat that remained was a huge tom that we call Big Smoky.  He is the toughest cat I have ever met, but this has had the unfortunate consequence of simply prolonging his suffering.

Otis arrived in our yard before the cat hoarder was taken away.  We thought he was simply a neighbor’s cat that was wandering through until we got a good look at how thin and sickly he was.  We started to feed and attempt to tame him.  He responded slowly, and we were finally able to touch him after 5 months of constantly building his trust.  It was because of the food supply that we were leaving out for Otis that the 16 cats converged on our yard after the hoarder was gone.  Otis had just moved inside with us when the convergence occurred, and it was then that we first began to hear him make the vocalizations I heard this morning.  It was also when we learned that Otis will not stop vocalizing until we take care of the cats that he sees outside.  We have risen from bed many hours earlier than planned countless times in the past four years to feed the hungry at Otis’s insistence.  Before this morning, it had been more than a month since we last heard him use his “hungry cat alarm call.”

As I mentioned, Big Smoky is the last of the cats that came from the hoarders house.  He is not the only cat from the group that was too wary to enter a trap, but he is the only one of the trap-shy cats that has not died from illness or injury or simply disappeared.  He has shown up in our yard with countless injuries- large infected wounds, most likely caused by fights with another tom.  He has also frequently become ill with horrible respiratory infections, apparent tooth infections and severe gastrointestinal issues.  A truly feral cat, his whole life is spent in confusion and suffering interspersed with the occasional free meal.  About five weeks ago he had come to eat.  He was extremely thin and sickly.  Diarrhea ran freely from his anus and was caked on his legs and tail.  His eyes were slightly glazed and he appeared to be a shell of his usual self.  He ate his fill and then disappeared.  As the weeks passed with no sign of him, we hoped for his sake that he would finally be at peace.

Last night I put into words what my wife and I had been thinking for at least two weeks.  “Well,” I said, “I think we have seen the last of Big Smoky.”  It was said with some sadness, but mostly with relief.  I really do believe that Smoky’s life is nothing short of nightmarish.  He is a domestic animal trapped in the shadows by his own fear.  He is terrified of humans, but he can’t survive without their help.  It breaks my heart to see his constant pain, and I only wish that I could humanely end his suffering.

So when I looked out the window this morning and exclaimed, “No way!” it was with a mix of incredulity and sadness.  I am in awe of Big Smoky’s continued survival, but I am in anguish over his continued suffering.  The only comfort I can offer him for now is a full stomach.  The fact that he survived during his five-week absence tells me that our house is not the only one Smoky is visiting for a free meal.  I hope that when the day comes that he is finally too injured or too ill to run away he will be in a place that either I or another caring individual can find him.  It is the fault of humans that Smoky’s life has been so full of pain and suffering.  At the very least, we owe it to him to ensure that he doesn’t suffer even one minute longer than he has to.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cache Prize

As I sat in my car at a red light this morning I watched two crows searching for food on the sidewalk.  It had been raining fairly hard for some time, and the pavement had been rinsed clean of most of the kind of tidbits that crows can find on drier days.  One of the crows turned and walked through a short hedgerow and resumed his search in the parking lot of a nearby Burger King.  The second crow followed slowly behind, but stopped next to one of the hedges.  He seemed slightly nervous, and he glanced in my direction more than once as if he was well aware that my eyes were on him.  He also looked at his companion who was now halfway across the parking lot poking his beak half-heartedly at something in a puddle.

After standing next to the bush for about 15 seconds, the wary crow poked his bill in among the branches and pulled out a beakful of dried leaves.  He poked his bill in again, and again extracted a small pile of leaves.  He went in a third time, and this time when he drew back he had a large wad of what looked like compacted hamburger bun in his beak.  The light turned green at this point, so I was not able to see whether or not the crow slunk off and ditched his companion to enjoy his secret hoard in peace.  As I drove away though, I wondered what other treasures this crow had hidden in the area.  I also wondered if his companion was at that very moment pulling out his own cached treat from a hiding spot on the other side of the parking lot.  Crows have so many secrets…

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Hope Floats

I have an image burned indelibly into my memory.  I see eleven small, black-and-white bodies moving in unison out to sea.  They are moving away from a line of smiling humans holding empty boxes.  On their left, another group of smiling humans, some of them holding cameras, watches them go.  There is much joy in the watching, but also much sadness, for there is a lingering memory of many other feathered beings whose lives ended before they were able to make this journey home.  Today, it is much easier not to dwell in that place of sadness.
The eleven swimming birds disappearing into the distance represented more than simply a handful of Common Murres returned to the wild.  They were a testament to the willingness of a large group of people to sacrifice their time, money, sleep and comfort to help other living creatures that were in distress.  They were living illustrations of the ability of humans to extend their compassion beyond themselves, beyond their acquaintances and even beyond their own species.  At a time when compassion seems increasingly hard to come by, the selfless actions performed by so many people in assisting these birds provide proof that compassion is still alive and well in our world.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

While walking along the Edmonds waterfront today I noticed a Western Gull resting on top of a light pole along one of the marina docks.  Most of the gulls in the marina are used to being in close proximity to humans.  They usually don't get nervous unless a person stops and focuses their attention on them.  Since I was on a walkway up above the docks, the light pole put the gull nearly at my eye level.  I did my best not to look directly at him as I walked by because I didn't want to disturb him from his rest.  Just as I passed him though, in my peripheral vision I saw him shift position.  I continued on and looked back only when I felt I had put enough distance between myself and the bird that he would not be made uncomfortable.

When I looked back, the gull was standing on one leg on top of the light.  This is not an unusual posture for gulls, but as he tried to put his other foot down, it clearly caused him pain.  He tipped forward off of the light and extended his wings to arrest his fall.  He made a soft, one-point landing on a nearby dock and then began to hobble in my direction, alternating between good foot and bad.  I knew he wasn't interested in me as I was above him and he never once looked in my direction, but he was moving with a purpose and he had piqued my curiosity.  As I continued to watch, the gull walked up to one of the water spigots on the dock that are there for the boaters to use.  I noticed that the spigot was dripping.  Clearly, the gull had noticed this long before I did.

I couldn't help but smile as the gull stuck his beak under the faucet and began to catch the fresh water droplets that were leaking out at about one second intervals.  Occasionally he glanced up at me with a droplet hanging from his bill, and then he returned to drinking.  After snapping a few photographs to commemorate the moment, I walked on, leaving the still drinking gull to finish quenching his thirst.  I hoped that his foot would soon heal, and that he would enjoy sipping from leaky faucets for many years to come.           


Friday, October 30, 2009

Educated Guess

Why is it that any time a bear is sighted in a populated area, the sighting always seems to occur near a school?  There were two separate stories in the news today that followed this pattern.  One was about three bears that have been wandering around Bremerton, WA, and the other was about a bear sighting in Bellevue.  Both mentioned that the bears had been seen near schools.  Judging from the intelligence of some of the bears I have met, I'm guessing that a few of them have gone so far as to attend classes at these schools.  I think that's what the whole "bear sighted near school" phenomenon is about.  The bears really just want to expand their minds, but as soon as someone sees them the whole school goes on lock-down.  The bears are then chased by Karelian bear dogs, darted and moved way back out into the mountains where there's not much fancy book-learnin' to be had.  Poor creatures.  These days it's nearly impossible for them to become smarter than the average bear :o).

Monday, October 26, 2009

Letting Nature Take It's Course

I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter today about an influx of distressed loons, murres and grebes at the wildlife center where I work.  The birds were affected by a toxic algae bloom along the Pacific coast that soiled their feathers and compromised their waterproofing.  After their feathers were no longer able to repel water, the birds struggled ashore to avoid death by drowning and hypothermia.  Once beached, a slow death by starvation was an inevitability for most of the birds.  And this was the fate of hundreds, if not thousands of them all along the Washington and Oregon coast.  But this was not to be the fate for all of them.  Caring humans intervened and transported over 500 birds to a rehabilitation center in Oregon.  My own center offered assistance and took in over 120 patients of our own.

Events like this have happened in the past, and reporters tend to ask the same questions each time a similar event occurs.  Today was no exception.  I fully expected it when the reporter asked me, "If this was an algae bloom that caused the birds' feather problems, it sounds like it was a natural event.  What would you say to people who say that you should let nature take its course?"  Now, I was representing an organization during this interview, so I had to give a professional answer rather than a personal answer.  So my answer included things like pointing out that human activity affects nearly every aspect of the natural world, and we can't say that we don't play some role in the frequency or severity of these toxic algae blooms.  I also mentioned that all of the birds for whom we are caring have seen drastic drops in their populations over the last decade so anything we can do to help them is a good thing.  Lastly I mentioned that the work we are doing is also largely a humane effort.  People finding these animals in distress need a place to turn to for help, and we provide a service not only to the animal, but to the community as well.  All sensible, straightforward reasons, but I did not share all that I felt inside.

After working for four days with very little sleep to help care for these birds, and watching everyone around me doing the same, it was hard not to feel somewhat disappointed by the oversimplification of the situation as indicated by the reporter's question.  To be honest, it is not so much that I have a problem with the question being asked.  I am a naturalist, and asking questions about nature is a constant state of being for me.  What I do have a problem with is the question being asked repeatedly, and in only one context-- when people are trying to save wild animals in distress.  Is the question ever asked when state wildlife managers say a species like deer must be hunted to make sure they don't overpopulate and eventually starve from a shortage of food?  Is the question asked when human rescue and relief efforts are mounted after a flood or earthquake?  So why ask the question when people are trying to help otherwise healthy wild birds who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?

My real answer to the reporter's question has nothing to do with whether or not humans contributed to the plight of these birds.  I think anyone who can see beyond the tip of their own nose can probably conclude for themselves whether or not that is the case.  What I really wanted to say is that we are letting nature take its course.  Every single human that has taken part in this rescue effort is a product of nature.  Through evolution we have arrived at our present state of being and that includes a complex set of emotions, not the least of which is compassion.  While some members of our species only feel compassion for other humans, our compassion extends to the other beings with whom we share the planet.  The drive to alleviate suffering is an inseparable part of who we are.  To ignore it, or to try to suppress it feels like the most unnatural thing of all.  Why, you ask, do we not let nature take its course?  I say that is exactly what we are doing.

Monday, October 19, 2009

I returned home after running some errands this afternoon to find a flurry of avian activity on a small woodlot across the street from my house.  Band-tailed Pigeons, American Robins and European Starlings were busy collecting ripe berries in a pair of side-by-side Madrona trees.  A Steller's Jay and a Bewick's Wren could both be heard calling and chattering from a Douglas Fir nearby.

After grabbing my camera from inside the house, I watched the mixed flock of foragers go about their business.  I was especially fascinated by the Band-tailed Pigeons.  They were quite adept at maneuvering their relatively large bodies along the thin branches.  They were able to tip forward, backward and even turn upside down in a manner that seemed more chickadee-like than pigeon-like. 

Once each of the dozen or so pigeons had eaten their fill, they flew into the upper branches of the fir from which the jay and wren had been calling.  Now, with both trees free of the larger-bodied birds, the robins and starlings continued to forage in the Madronas for several more minutes.  After satisfying their appetites, they too moved on.

See more photos of the Band-tailed Pigeons on

Face to Face With A Giant

My wife Julie and I headed out to a favorite mushroom hunting spot today in the hopes of reaping the bounty of the past week's rains.  As we wandered the thickly forested mountainside looking for chanterelles and other edibles, it quickly became clear that we were not the first two people to have this idea.  After searching for some time we had found only the cut stalks of two large cauliflower mushrooms and a handful of chanterelles.  As we continued to search, we heard the loud popping of twigs breaking somewhere nearby.  We stopped, standing silently with our heads turned in the direction of the sound.  Three humans came into view about 50 yards upslope.  Satisfied that the breaking twigs needed no further investigation, Julie and I slipped quietly away in the opposite direction.

We continued traversing the wooded slope and eventually crossed a small stream.  Not far from the stream I noticed a familiar musky smell as I passed a large cedar stump.  Thinking I might have discovered an uncut cauliflower mushroom I followed the scent.  Approaching the stump I did not find a cauliflower mushroom, but I did find something much more exciting.  A long, shiny body mottled with shades of dark brown and an almost golden color sat in the shadows at the foot of the cedar remnant.  I felt the same kind of excitement that I felt in my childhood when making this kind of discovery.  I blurted out something like, "Julie!  Come quick!  It's a salamander!"  Moving toward me Julie inquired, "What kind?", to which I replied, "It's a Giant!  Pacific Giant I think!"

Julie made her way to my position and pointed out some overripe Chicken of the Woods mushrooms that were likely the source of the smell I had detected.  We then both looked at the salamander that was seemingly unaware of, or at least outwardly nonreactive to our presence.  Because we were on a slope, and the ground rose up around the base of the stump, we did not have to bend over very far to be right at eye level with the large amphibian.  We spent several minutes just looking at him in awe, amazed by his colors, his markings and his striking eyes.  I took a few photos to remember him by, and then we left the salamander as we had found him.  We walked out of the woods in high spirits despite the mostly empty mushroom bag that we carried with us.

More photos of the Pacific Giant Salamander can be found on


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paved Paradise

On my way home from work today I dropped a wayward traveler off at the beach along Puget Sound.  Sometime earlier in the day this wandering soul had been flying high.  He was headed for salt water to spend the winter fishing among the kelp and eel grass with large flocks of his kin.  He came up about a mile and a half short, but not because he was out of energy or otherwise physically incapable of continuing the flight.  No, he fell victim to a trick of the eyes, and his interpretation of what he saw led him to land prematurely.  That premature landing could have meant the end of the line for the unfortunate bird.

From the air, it can be challenging to tell the difference between wet pavement and the surface of a body of water.  It must be especially difficult for a bird whose species has not needed to make such a distinction for most of its history on the planet.  They undoubtedly recognize wet rock faces as they fly over mountains, but a huge, flat swath of glistening wet blacktop is a different matter altogether.  The only natural, large flat swaths of glistening wetness that they see are bodies of water, and they can't tell that the pavement is not what it appears to be until they have already crash landed.

If a mallard or a goose lands on wet pavement, it's not the end of the world.  They simply launch themselves back into the air and continue on their way.  For birds like the Western Grebe (today's wayward traveler) landing on pavement is a disaster.  They are highly adapted to life on and in the water.  Their legs are situated far back on their bodies making it extremely awkward for them to stand up.  They can take flight from water by first paddling and then running awkwardly on the surface to gain enough speed for liftoff.  They are incapable of getting airborne from dry land, so once they hit the pavement they are grounded.

Fortunately for today's grebe, a kind woman found him sitting on her lawn when she exited her home.  He had likely crashed on the nearby road and had been struggling about, trying his best to figure a way out of the predicament.  His feet had nicks and abrasions from the effort, but he was otherwise unhurt.  After he spent a couple hours in a pool to make sure he was still waterproof, and after he finished an all-he-could-eat fish dinner, I was happy to help the grebe complete his journey to his wintering grounds.  My co-worker Jim did the honors and placed the bird gently in the water.  The grebe paddled furiously away from shore before relaxing and giving himself a few good shakes to realign his feathers.  He then swam slowly seaward, periodically diving and resurfacing as he went. It seemed that he had left the troubles of the day behind him on the beach.  What he saw and what he felt were once again in alignment. 

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Small Disputes

A holly tree at my place of work has recently become the stage for an ongoing dispute among at least four Anna's Hummingbirds.  The argument was first brought to my attention last Saturday when I investigated the loud vocalizations of two male hummingbirds that were facing off in the branches of the holly.  One bird sat low in the tree, looking up and waving his bill from side to side while chattering away in his distinct hummingbird voice.  The other was about six feet higher, looking down and doing his own vocalizing and bill waving.  While the first two birds were arguing, a third male flew in and buzzed the perch of the bird that was higher in the branches.  The perching bird responded immediately and took off on the the tail of the interloper, chattering like mad all the way.  The bird that was lower in the branches quickly fell silent and slightly retracted his neck as if he now wished to keep a low profile.

On Tuesday I returned to the holly tree to discover a lone male hummingbird sitting high in the branches.  He periodically took short flights to feed on blossoms the tree had produced before returning to hold vigil against intruders from his chosen lookout.  No other birds were seen or heard.  It appeared that either the hummingbird dispute had ended in victory for the bird that was present, or his two rivals were elsewhere at the moment tending to other matters.

Returning to the tree today I discovered a sub-adult female Anna's Hummingbird sitting in nearly the same position as the male that I encountered on Tuesday.  As I watched her, a male flew in and hovered nearby, but she barraged him with seemingly angry chatter that sent him retreating to a high alder branch above.  The birds had two or three more verbal exchanges during the following ten minutes, but neither moved from its perch.  I left them to continue the discussion in my absence, but I couldn't help but wonder what new dynamic will have developed within this group of tiny competitors the next time I visit this disputed tree.   

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Feeling of Freedom

Tonight I released ten sub-adult raccoons that had been raised at the wildlife rehabilitation center where I am employed.  When they are making their transition from captivity to freedom, young raccoons always make me think of kids set free in a candy store.  But it's not sweets that the racoons are getting worked up about (although I'm sure they wouldn't turn them down if offered).  For a young raccoon, the "candy" in a world without walls is the infinite number of textures waiting to be investigated at length with their sensitive forepaws.

Even before the raccoons leave their transport carrier their paws stretch out through the open door to grab every twig, leaf, rock and fern frond within reach.  Each object the paws encounter is thoroughly rolled, rubbed, crumpled and pressed between those two dark, five-fingered information gathering devices.  When they exit the carrier it often appears as if their senses are all working independently of one another.  The paws continue to grab nearby objects and feel them while the eyes, ears and nose gather information from a greater distance than the paws can manage.  Occasionally what the paws are feeling warrants further inspection by one of the other senses, and the nose and/or eyes are momentarily brought into play before the object is either discarded or popped into the raccoon's mouth.

Eventually the urge to explore takes hold on the raccoons and they set off in whichever direction they have decided is most inviting.  Usually this means heading towards the water's edge where they will find even more tactile sensations to experience, but they take their time getting there.  The slow progress of the raccoons can easily be followed even after the animals themselves have disappeared into thick cover.  They cannot resist touching everything they pass, and their movement in a given direction can be tracked by the spasmodic movements of the tops of plants, the textured stems of which are being enthusiastically experienced by the unseen raccoons below.  

Wildness Surrounds Us

Wildness truly is a part of our everyday lives. We may not always see it, or recognize it when we do, but the wild is ubiquitous and ever-present. Whether you are watching a mother bear and cub eating huckleberries in a high alpine meadow, or a pair of crows eating a smashed burrito on a city street, you are getting a small glimpse of the wild. When I speak of the everyday wild I am referring to this wildness that is always right under our nose, but that we often fail to see. If you can begin to acknowledge the everyday wild, your eyes will be opened to a much more interesting and complex world; one in which you are never truly alone.