Cuckoo Over Owls

Long-Eared Owls rarely range west of the Cascades.
Long-Eared Owls rarely range west of the Cascades.

Long-Eared Owls rarely range west of the Cascades.

It once roosted in a thicket the size of a two-car garage, amidst wetlands and diked agricultural fields near Stanwood. The brush was so thick, the Long-Eared Owl must have felt unassailable. Long-barreled photographic devices proliferated and trained at it like arms in a cold war. The birders and the avian paparazzi jostled and bickered and shoved like football fans queued for playoff tickets. With Mount Baker gleaming in the background, hunters boomed rifles, dogs sniffed and barked and, just across a flooded field, a battalion of construction workers jack-hammered and backed loudly beeping trucks.

Yet, all the while, the object of everyone’s desire might crack open one of its impossibly large eyes but otherwise appear to not give … a hoot.

The people did, for sure.

The nocturnal birds of prey with the long, distinctive ear tufts prefer shrub-steppe habitat in Eastern Washington, making their presence on the other side of the mountains a “thing,” the way a new iPhone is a “thing.” The resultant mobbing of the Long-Eared Owls at one point regressed into panic that one literally had been loved to death. Those fears proved unfounded, but the episodic two months provided yet another cautionary tale about unchecked human interaction with one of nature’s more sensitive species.

One of the Long-Eared Owls, at dusk.

One of the Long-Eared Owls, at dusk.

Almost more than any feathered creature, owls will bring out the cuckoo in birders.

“Owls become like religion for people,” said Dr. Kevin McGowan, a professional ornithologist and educator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the global authorities on birds.

“They are more people-like — like cats. Those round heads and flat faces — it ticks something in the brain that other birds wouldn’t inspire.”

On Dec. 8, Mitchell Von Rotz of Woodinville made one of those sightings that sends feathers – and people – flying. He posted to Tweeters, a local birding email list processor, or listserv, that he was “80-85” percent certain he’d spotted a LEOW (birder’s shorthand for Long-Eared Owl) near Stanwood. He also noted, “it may be a quasi noteworthy sighting,” which may have been an understatement along the lines of, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

So many birders subscribe to instant alerts that reports like Von Rotz’s are tantamount to firing a starter’s pistol. The race certainly was on after Ryan Merrill of Kirkland made the state’s first-ever confirmed sighting of a Wood Sandpiper in 2011. Just before posting a report online, Merrill warned Harley Soltes, the owner of the Edison, Wash., farm on which the sighting was made: “You might need help to manage the crowds.” Shortly after Merrill hit “send” on his phone, the cars started lining up along Bayview-Edison Road, according to Soltes.

Merrill’s transmission was made over Tweeters, which was established by Dan Victor in 1992. Victor’s preceded another bird-themed social network, Twitter, by 28 migrations or 14 years, depending on how you mark your time. Closing in on 3,500 subscribers and read by countless others on the Web, Tweeters is a place to chirp about anything bird related. Cats eating birds is the all-time, “hot-button issue,” according to Victor. The most ubiquitous sightings-only tool is eBird, an online data-collection program launched by the Cornell Lab and National Audubon Society in 2002 that can be accessed via smartphone applications.

The aftershocks of Von Rotz’s report didn’t really hit until the holidays, when crowds and emotions began to escalate. Mayhem seemed an inevitable consequence. Belinda Rotton, who manages the Skagit Wildlife Area for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, received reports of as many as 20-30 cars at the site, stretching from a parking lot that holds about six. The demise of one of the Long-Eareds was incorrectly reported more often than Morgan Freeman’s. When photographer Bryce Yamashita of Bothell returned to the site in February, he felt such a chill from birders, he skipped looking for the Long-Eared Owls because he “didn’t want to get beat up or yelled at by anybody.” Even hunters felt squeezed out by the raptor-triggered mosh pits.

The WDFW posted signs and increased its presence.

The WDFW posted signs and increased its presence.

The place ended up looking like the high-school football field the morning after senior prom. Large parts of the thicket were trampled and strewn with waterfowl carcasses and garbage. Sammy Catiis of Arlington says she found a knife sticking out of a tree where branches were cut away. Someone went joyriding in a four-wheeler and chewed up sections of the adjoining farmland. The WDFW eventually plopped down signs and increased its enforcement presence.

McGowan of the Cornell Lab listened to a detailed account of the commotion near Stanwood and offered a figurative shrug. He noted that Long-Eared Owls generally are plentiful and far from threatened. The same could not be said of people inspired enough by birds to help protect the environment. “People who are in the business of protecting the well-being of a species are all about populations and habitats,” McGowan said. “Everything else is a distraction.”

The Washington Ornithological Society weighed in late with a release warning against aggressive behavior by humans viewing and photographing the Long-Eared Owls. The WOS posited that there are “telltale signs that a roosting owl has been disturbed,” an assertion disputed by bird and raptor experts.People tend to project their own anxieties on the birds, McGowan and several local avian experts said, and the fact that the owls remained near Stanwood as long as they did tells the tale more than anything else.

“They have wings, don’t they?” one local authority asked, suggesting the owls could easily have moved if genuinely harassed. For that matter, the legions of outraged birders and photographers had the same choice. After all, numerous birding listservs and forums, even the American Birding Association, discourage reporting the location of sensitive species, which certainly include owls, particularly the dislocated.

Barb Deihl of Matthews Beach once had been posting on Tweeters as much as several times a week about the Long-Eared Owls. Her reports included links to photos and description of the owls’ behavior. Increasingly, the posts contained complaints about the expanding human circus, which she now fears she may have contributed to arousing.

“I have vacillated between feeling guilty about doing this,” said the retired junior-high-school teacher.

The last post about the Stanwood site on Tweeters was a response to another by Deihl on Feb. 24. Hers included nary a mention or photograph of the owls. There weren’t many people in her photos, either. She’s since moved on to another longtime love, the Merlin, a falcon that she volunteers to monitor in Seattle neighborhoods that barely notice its presence.

A Long-Eared Owl, striking at prey.

A Long-Eared Owl, striking at prey.

Most of this story appeared at Crosscut.com.

For More Owl Photos: Click Here.

2015 Calendar: Nature Calls

Twilight at Second Beach.

People keep telling me, “You should do a calendar!”

And other people smarter than me say, “You’ll be sorry!”

I’m heeding the former; let’s prove those latter folks wrong! I know $30 is at the high end for a calendar, but, honestly, I might make a couple bucks on each, paying for half a gallon of the many gallons of gas I burned, chasing the light this past year.

You can see the lineup below.

I will take orders until DECEMBER 7. That way, I can get the calendars out before the holidays.

Hit me on the Contact Page to make arrangements. PayPal would be great, but Bitcoins also work (not really; can anyone explain to me how they work?).

By the way, clicking on any image below will launch a viewer.

Twilight at Second Beach

Twilight at Second Beach.
Twilight at Second Beach.

Twilight at Second Beach.

First Beach, also in Olympic National Park (Wash.), and not Second Beach, is one of the settings in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight book series. People still hop off tour buses up the road, at Three Rivers Resort, to pose for pictures with cutouts of Bella and Edward. I stop there for the milkshakes.

But none of this has much to do with today’s photo. The twilight here is the period after sunset (and just before sunrise) – the bridge between light and dark.

In other words, if you are snapping sunsets, twilight is the time when everyone “got what they came for,” packed up and left you to capture the more original pictures. About an hour before I took this one, I was one of at least a half dozen people literally lined up to get a shot of a sunburst peeking out of the hole in the rock formation that, in this image, leads out to the right of the sea stack.

It’s kind of a cool picture, but thoroughly unoriginal. I assume, that is, that everyone but the kid shooting with her iPhone, got essentially the same thing. Not to mention the hordes who tried for the same shot before, and those who will try in the future.

What everyone else got.

What everyone else got.

Watch enough sunsets and you’ll come to know that the real light show begins after the sun has dipped below the horizon. If you’re lucky, some scattered clouds will make things real interesting. I had a clear night, which wasn’t utterly disappointing since I’d been to Second Beach at least six times since last summer and each time the sun was completely hidden by massive cloud cover. In those situations, you get gray, then dark gray.

I waited long enough to get a sliver of a moon, plus a mix of the red from a still-hot, though long set sun with the blue the sky turns for the hour or so after sunset. If you recall your elementary art, that turns out to be purple. This picture was taken an hour after sunset.

The tide was coming in at that point, which is why I was shooting in the dark at f14 and ISO 100. The resulting 6-second shutter turned the water silky while also recording movement in the slight cloud cover. What looks like sand in the vast majority of the foreground of this picture actually is incoming Pacific Ocean.

What awaits afterward at Second Beach is about a ¾-mile hike, the first quarter or so on steep incline, in pitch-black forest. So you’d better have a headlamp or, at least, a flashlight. Neither will be of much help, however, if you run into any vampires.

Equipment: Nikon D800, Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 lens, Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead.

Settings: 19mm, f14, 6 seconds at ISO 100.

The Photographic Life is a Beach

Little Hunter's Beach in Acadia National Park.
Little Hunter's Beach in Acadia National Park

Little Hunter’s Beach in Acadia National Park

As much as I’ve tried to drive home the importance of planning and preparation during the first three installments of this series, there are of course times to make the best of what you get.

If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll have noticed that, in addition to discussing a different scene in a different part of the country, I’ve been moving through different parts of the day. My last post (Duck on Branch) was midday, a time usually spent at lunch. Today, we’re looking at the dead of afternoon, a time also better spent doing something else.
[Read more…]

Duck on Branch (Be Prepared)

A male Wood Duck at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
A male Wood Duck at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

A male Wood Duck at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

NISQUALLY, Wash. — During winter, I usually am toting my long lens and often run into hunters.

“Big lens,” many will comment.

“Big gun,” I usually reply.

Though a lot of birders and wildlife photographers bristle, I enjoy my encounters with hunters. After all, we’re both looking for the same thing, and we’re both going to shoot it, albeit me with a camera. We also both usually have gathered intelligence the other can use.
[Read more…]

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