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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.