The Last Bird
11-12 May 2005
Departing Ventura meant our exodus from southern California. We were glad to be leaving some of the traffic behind while looking forward to going north to finding new species. As a former unnamed museum curator proved in a lengthy monograph that no one could fully grasp why it was written, the further north you go, the fewer southern birds you see. The author was not promoted even though his biological theory has been proven repeatedly.
Our first stop was Hobson County Park, a narrow beachside park full of campers and an ocean with at least one Clark’s Grebe. There were other Aechmophorus grebes but they were too beyond the scope to discern Western from Clark’s species. The sea was calmer than yesterday’s white caps. We also stopped at Goleta Beach County Park. It was unpredictably full of sunbathers, a few hardy swimmers, strollers (walking and rolling) and very little parking room. It was Wednesday. Perhaps the onslaught was the result of people not wishing to pay the high entrance fees of California’s state parks compared to the free county parks.
We got back on northbound U.S. 101. The goal was Nojoqui Falls County Park. This would be our first opportunity for finding Chestnut-backed Chickadee, a northern species to support the north/south biological theory. Getting there required us to detour through Solvang since the bridge via the shorter and more direct route had washed out a couple of weeks earlier. A stop in Solvang, self-proclaimed the Danish capital of America, was full of Old World Nineteenth Century architecture. The thatched roofs lacked storks sitting on them, but there were starlings and House Sparrows to make any European feel at home. I checked in at the information center about the location of the falls. A kindly octogenarian something provided explicit directions to the park. She also politely but sternly warned me not to climb the rocks at the falls. “My grandson was climbing and became trapped. The police had to use ropes to get him down.” I assured here I would stay on the designated trails. Linda and I had no desire to get involved with police and ropes, and our waning energy would not permit climbing rock walls even if we wanted to.
The road south of Solvang to Nojoqui Falls was narrow, nearly deserted and quite. It was the opposite of the wide, traffic choked and noisy pikes we had been traveling since the short respite in the San Gabriel Mountains. Rolling grass growing fields and smatterings of tall deciduous trees decorated the route. Turning into the park and shortly after parking, I again heard a call note that could have come only from a pied woodpecker. Maybe it was a Hairy, but it did not sound exactly right for that species. I hunted the oaks and sycamores to no avail. Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Bullock’s Orioles and American Robins kept me alert to the possibility to the wanted Nuttall’s Woodpecker. We strolled to the falls and back without any avian incident.
While returning to Solvang we encountered three Yellow-billed Magpies, a new trip species. Not having seen these birds in a few years, I was struck by how much smaller they are from the black-billed species.
Accelerating back on U.S. 101, I announced, “Here goes beetle-baum or bettle-balm, the name of a horse in a race announced by Spike Jones set to Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The running “joke” is that each time entering a freeway seemed like entering a race. So, on we hurtled north, reaching our motel in San Luis Obispo. We were about to enter the final stage of our journey. We were tired of traffic and in need of a rest. We spent to next day resting, supplying our food reserve and catching up on our notes.
Up early. Several trees, including a large sycamore formed a boundary on one side of our motel. While carrying a couple of bags to the car I heard a pied woodpecker. It did not sound like a Hairy or Downy. Something flew. It was large enough to be a Nuttall’s Woodpecker. Tantalized, I walked down to the tree. The only sound was a Western Kingbird cavorting near the treetop.
It seems ironic that we were to miss Nuttall’s Woodpecker. I had not seen one in 30 years although the species had been the primary subject on a 1994 paper I coauthored with a former college professor. We reported a specimen from Oregon. Nuttall’s Woodpecker was also a species chronicled in my study on generic relationships of all species of pied woodpeckers. I know it well, from its plumage to its skeleton. I would be nice to see a live one again.
We planned to drive to Redding today, a seven-hour drive, without stops. Our ride inland took us across semiarid hill country, a rolling landscape barren of trees and brush. Occasional bovines dotted the slopes and less occasional a lone ranch house marked the scene. Further, inland the road climbed the northern slopes of the Temblor Range. It is a small range of the Coastal Mountains bounded on the west by Carrizo Plain, apparently a good place to see Sage Sparrows, and the San Andreas Rift Zone, a place to lose your balance and worse. We missed Sage Sparrows but were happy that earthquakes were not on our schedule. Westward, we crossed the Kettleman Hills before finally descending into the San Joaquin Valley, arriving at I-5, thus coming full circle with our route southward to Bakersfield in late March. The Kettleman Hills are paleontologicaly important for fossil bearing sites, particularly invertebrates, and for having concentrations of the fungus Coccidioides immitis that can cause Valley Fever. It is a potentially fatal disease frequently affecting the lungs. Farmers, construction workers and other digging in the dirt are more apt to get Valley Fever, a disease found from Arizona to California. We had held our breath as we eased down the west slope of the hills, and held it again, several times, as we passed mammoth cattle feed lots, the bovines practically stacked on top of each other, some playing cow of the mountain on huge mounds of their own feces. Dead cattle walking. Our next stop would not be for a hamburger.
Once on I-5, the speed went up and the gas mileage went down. The number of bugs hitting the windshield went up and my enthusiasm for driving went down. The highway took us quickly beyond the capital and up the Sacramento River, the northern part of the great Central Valley. It was good that we found Yellow-billed Magpies near Nojoqui Falls County Park a couple of days ago. Interstate speeds, their width and nearly sterile highway right-of-way not attractive to roadside birds.
Early morning revelry by our Redding motel neighbors woke us before we were ready. They were loud enough for us to learn from our closed door that this was the prelude to a large family reunion. What we now needed was a reunion with coffee and breakfast for a rendezvous with Blue and perhaps Ruffed grouse in a canyon known as French Gulch. The drive to the mountains northwest of Redding soon revealed that finding grouse would be difficult. Last August a wildfire burned 13,005 acres of the canyon. The fire, officially called the French Fire, was one of many such fires last fall. I overlooked, during planning, that it destroyed much of French Gulch. We drove in silence, disappointed and shaken. Fire is unforgiving. Amid the acrid smell of burnt pines and firs, spring wildflowers covered the treeless mountains with yellows and deep violets. This was the beginning of plants reclaiming the scorched earth. It would be decades and more before the region returned to suitable Blue Grouse (=Sooty Grouse) habitat. There are many such regions in southern Oregon, places that burned when I was a prebirder, before 1957. Unfortunately, lowering water tables because the burned vegetation no longer protected the slopes from evaporation and erosion, lack of replanting, and invading brush do not always mean a region will return as a forest. After 50 years, many such former burned forests are eroded brush covered slopes. Parts of the Tillamook Burn, the collective name for four major fires in northwestern Oregon, have never fully recovered. The first two fires, in 1933 and 1939 were the result of logging operations and the third from a cigarette. Sources disagree whether the fourth fire was in 1951 or 1952, and do not reveal its cause. The legendary Tillamook Burn may have destroyed 360,882 acres (=563 square miles or almost half the size of Rhode Island), depending on the source chronicling this still controversial fire. The destroyed forest, some of it with 400-year-old trees, will not return for many generations, assuming there is no logging or fires.
Below the barren charcoal mountain slopes birds crowded into surviving riparian trees along the creek and tributary ravines of French Gulch. We searched for MacGillivray’s Warbler but found only Yellow, Wilson’s, and Orange-crowned warblers. Some of these were migrants. The calls of Mountain Quail echoed down the slopes. We drove upward on an eroded dirt track, finding active mining claims along the creek and a large mining operation perched on a steep slope on our way to the summit. There was “gold in them thar hills” in the beginning of French Gulch, the town, and gold is still being mined. Gold was worth about $36 an ounce back when I was heading east for my first Kirtland’s Warbler. Gold today is worth close to $500 an ounce or enough for mining operations again to put the bite on natural habitat. There was a low hum emanating from the otherwise quite hillside mine. Maybe the crew had taken off for the weekend. Farther up, weekend workers were busy. Just as we arrived above the fire damage, just as we began seeing large dense forests, and just as our hopes for Blue Grouse increased, the noise of tree cutting and road building rolled down the narrowing road. We gave up.
East of Redding, we sped by the northwest entrance of Lassen Volcanic National Park, where much of the roads were still choked with mounds of snow. Our goal was Hat Creek, a forest service area not far to the north. Black-backed Woodpeckers had been found there but not recently and not by us today. The tall pines stood as if welcoming any woodpecker but the forest was nearly silent. Time was pushing us onward to the 910-acre McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial Park. The falls is 127 feet, the highest and largest in California, and plummets over volcanic basalt into a cool misty chasm. I had not been to the falls since 1961 when on way for my only visit to Lassen, a test run for my car and myself before embarking on the trip east in 1962. When Linda and I entered the McArthur-Burney Park, I mentioned to the ranger that I had not been to the falls in 44 years; he said the only thing that had changed was the location of the restrooms.
Linda and I hiked to the base of the falls while searching for nesting Black Swifts, traditionally a sure thing at Burney Falls. There was not a swift to see or hear. Fortunately, we had seen Black Swifts along the cliffs near La Jolla. Our only other opportunity was Mill Creek Falls in Oregon. I had hurriedly birded that falls on 2 June 1962, initiation day of the trip. There were no Black Swifts that day and were not known there until they were believed to be nesting there in 2004.
As we drove toward McCloud, we passed the massive southern slopes of Mt. Shasta, a 14,162-foot white mountain of snow and glaciers rivaling Mt. Rainier in Washington for in size. It also challenged Rainier by its imposing beauty. Mt. Shasta should have been a national park. Fond memories of skiing Mt. Shasta’s lower slopes during high school days and later climbing it in 1964 fueled my bias one of my favorite mountains. No binoculars weighted my oxygen hungry lungs. I was too busy breathing and watching my step on the way up and had zero visibility, called a whiteout, part of the way down. A sign a sign a few miles up Pilgrim Creek Road, a route on the east slope of Mt. Shasta read “Road Closed.” There went another chance to find Black-backed Woodpeckers.
McCloud, a hamlet due south of Mt. Shasta was our next destination. We had not been here for decades. In 1961, when I passed through, McCloud was a privatized company town geared to the logging and lumber. Now, no longer privatized, the town of 1343 people, about a thousand less than in the 60s, caters to tourism. Our tourist interest were south of town, along mountain meadows and streamside willows to look for none other than Willow Flycatchers, MacGillivray’s Warblers and a few others. We heard MacGillivray’s singing. Our luck continued as we ticked off Green-tailed Towhee and Hammond’s Flycatcher, a species missed on the earlier part of the trip. We found Chestnut-backed Chickadees near the canopy just off a Forest Service road. Another new bird missed in the 60s. I flushed a Fox Sparrow just before piling back in the car.
It was late. We were tired and running out of money. We could spend a night in Shasta City and tomorrow morning drive up the old ski bowl where I once skied. Maybe we we’d find Blue Grouse, Williamson’s Sapsucker and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch or maybe we wouldn’t. We decided that we wouldn’t. It was time to go home.
Linda drove the last 100 or so miles home. I caught up on my notes, enjoyed the scenery, the green slopes and rain that we wished for in March, and birds. There were fleeting observations long enough to identify an immature Bald Eagle north of Yreka, unmistakable Black-billed Magpies near Hornbrook and a clear view of a Peregrine Falcon on the north slope of the Siskiyou Mountains in Oregon. These were familiar but new trip birds at familiar places. Home was near.
Today we slept and slept and slept. We rested between slumber and the enjoyment of our familiarly comfortable bed. As near exhaustion slipped away, I began mentally plotting how to find a few of the species we had missed. According to our self-imposed rules for the trip, we could include species we found near home for only a couple of days. Somehow, we missed Olive-sided Flycatcher. There was a good chance to find a couple of northern breeding birds including American Merganser and Golden-crowned Kinglet and perhaps a lingering Common Goldeneye or Golden-crowned Sparrow. The welcome sound of rain pattering on the roof dampened my thoughts. I must have fallen back to sleep.
In 1962, I was so anxious to travel east that I ignored the local birds. Consequently, I had missed several western Oregon species and today was opportunity to find them. Armed with a list of eight species that I thought would be easy to find, I sat out to skim the better local birding sites. Before I left the house, before I ate breakfast, before I did anything, I heard the unmistakable pecking of a sapsucker from the bathroom window. I hurried down stairs, at least as fast early morning would allow, to the back door where a Red-breasted Sapsucker was foraging on a creek-side cottonwood. That was easy. I drove to one of the local state-owned wetlands, heard a lingering Golden-crowned Sparrow that gave a clean sweep of all the Zonotrichia sparrows. White-tailed Kites and Ring-necked Pheasants were expected but not forthcoming. A rush to the local sewage treatment rendered a handful of Wilson’s Phalaropes, a new species. A couple dozen foraging Red-necked Phalaropes there were less fleeting than those on the trip to Santa Cruz Island. Later, I birded at Lost Creek Reservoir region where a Brown Creeper quietly minced up a Douglas fir. It was the first seen this year. By the end of the day, I had ticked off a dozen species, either for the trip or for the year. White-tailed Kites were nesting at my high school friend’s ranch where I had once worked for his late father to save money for the 60s trip. White-tailed Kites were rare in southern Oregon then. I was happy that they were more common today.
When I wasn’t planning birding trips in the 1960’s to the Oregon coast or Lassen Volcanic or Crater Lake national parks, or the Klamath Basin, I was birding my local Jackson County in Oregon. At that time, Lost Creek Reservoir and the local sewage plant were blueprints. Some of the best wetland birding was the state-owned wildlife management areas and Hoover’s Lakes, a series of privately owned ponds. One of my first projects at Smithsonian was to organize my youthful observations, and those of others, into a manuscript. The result was a 1975 publication of an annotated list of 259 species. Since then various checklists list more and more species. When I was amassing data for my little publication most of the avid birders could just about fit in my VW. Today there are dozens of local birders and well over 50 million birders in the United States?
Someone recently asked me if there are fewer individual birds today. After gulping to the realization that my age is showing, I said yes. Locally, Hoover’s Lakes became an off-road vehicle testing grounds. Migrating shorebirds lost. Olive-sided Flycatchers and many other montane birds are hard to find. The remaining forests are worrisomely silent. The last colony of Burrowing Owls disappeared under a new school and residential houses, the fields full of Western Meadowlarks and Ring-necked Pheasants became commercial property for parking lots and fast food establishments. The Western Kingbirds that nested nearby on a power pole transformer cannot live with the increased car traffic flowing below. These anecdotal observations are not nearly as disastrous as the facts. Neotropical migrants breeding in southwestern Oregon, based on Breeding Bird Surveys, have decreased, on an average, by 36% from 1968 to 2002. Some species have not fared much worse. In 30 years Rufous Hummingbird populations dropped by 50%. Breeding populations of Olive-sided Flycatchers in Oregon have declined about 5% per year in 30 years. Western Meadowlarks have been losing the habitat battle by over 7% in western Oregon. Most grassland species in North America are decreasing.
Increases in number of birders and improved communication for finding birds possibly give the allusion that birds are easy to find. Maybe, but maybe not. Five Brown-toasted Scrub-Sparrows might be hard to locate by a single birder, but easier by five birders. However, after exposure to biochemicals and bad habitat, we are left with one Brown-toasted Scrub-Sparrow. As the species decreased in number, the number of birders increased. Now there are 500 birders looking for the single bird. Someone finds it, gets on the internet, and the Brown-toasted Scrub-Sparrow is easy to find. In fact, some Oregon species, including Barn Swallows and Bullock’s Orioles are so easy to locate that most people do not believe the species have not decreased. I should have told my young questioner, none of this is new information. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes the plight of birds and the environment. If they had, we would be doing more to save the birds and ourselves.
An early start was not necessary today. The only likely way to add new species to our trip list would take us far too from home, and there was a good chance to add a new species within about an hour of driving. Sleeping late was to accommodate a one p.m. appointment. That was because Steve Godwin, biologist working out of the Medford, Oregon, BLM office told us back in February he could deliver a Great Gray Owl, and because yesterday he suggested meeting in the early afternoon. Great Gray Owl! The species was almost common around Fort Klamath, Oregon, in 1962, but not the day I visited or any earlier times when I was a fledgling birder. I also did not find Great Grays in Yellowstone a couple of weeks later. This was not a species on the early trip list. This was not a species on my life list. A hurried winter trip to Minnesota in the 1980s was not a Great Gray Owl event and revisits to Ft. Klamath and the southern Oregon Cascades were unsuccessful.
Back at the Division of Birds, I had read R. W. Nero and R. Taylor’s “The Great Gray Owl, Phantom of The Northern Forest,” a 1980 book published by Smithsonian Institution Press. Phantom was a good choice to describe the allusive owl, a species I was wondering if I would ever find. How could the largest of North American owls, with its 4-foot wingspan be so difficult to locate? Part of the answer is being in the right place and the right time, but that is important for finding any species, just as getting in or avoiding an auto accident, and finding a clean service station restroom. Great Gray Owls are also hard to find because they breed in dense forests, often sit motionless for long periods and their vocalizations are generally infrequent and usually are not loud.
When I announced to Linda, as we hurtled up the southern slope of the Siskiyou Mountains on I-5, that we had yet to see a Golden Eagle, she had a good explanation. “Probably more than one had seen us.” How true, and more than likely a gray oval face and yellow eyes had pointed downward as I searched over the years for the phantom Great Gray Owl. Today would be different. Unfortunately, my sage and best buddy was busy reorganizing after our travels so I went alone.
Slightly afternoon, I topped the 4,451-foot Green Springs Summit of Oregon highway 66. The road was the only link across the Cascade Mountains in southern Oregon during my growing up years. As then, the highway is a narrow two-lane carved on the slopes with abrupt and dizzying heights frequently without the psychologically appealing guardrails. Part of 66 was the same or parallel route as the Applegate Trail in 1846 and later the Southern Oregon Trail, an alternate to the then dangerous Oregon Trail along the Columbia River. Charles Bendire traveled the route when stationed at Ft. Klamath in the 1800s.
The summit is just north of the newly formed Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Steve was waiting in his vehicle. He told me that last week a volunteer had been working on the Pacific Crest Trail and discovered a nesting pair of Great Gray Owls on BLM land. Steve found two juveniles, one about half the size of its sibling, and two attentive adults. It was just up a gravel road from the summit and then a short jaunt on the PCT. We jumped in our respective vehicles and sloshed up the road. The long period of spring rain had left the solid dirt road full of potholes and the roadside and slopes draped with a multitude of colors and species of wildflowers. Snow Queens, the flower Linda and I chose for our February wedding too few years ago should not be blooming among the Trilliums and Fawn Lilies, but the warm dry February and March had turned the season upside down. The trail was muddy, in places forming a small stream, and graced with deep purple larkspurs, bright yellow buttercups and more. Hiking any part of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail was always rewarding if it was only to see what was around the next bend. The last time we crossed the trail was near the Siskiyou Summit four days earlier. We were so tired we did not notice. Earlier, we crossed the trail at MacArthur-Burney Falls State Park, California, where we search for Black Swifts. We were near the trail in the San Gabriel Mountains and crossed it several miles east of San Diego, just miles from the Mexican border where the trail begins its way to Canada.
I dreamt of my first Great Gray Owl about 30 years after the idea of the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT was designated a National Trails System by Congress in 1968, but was not so dedicated until 1993. What took so long? Perhaps they were waiting for someone to discover Great Gray Owls nesting along the trail. Now, the trail would take me to the greatest and most elusive owl.
The nest tree, a tree broken about 25 feet up, was empty. Six feet away, perched on top of a similar but shorter broken snag sat a young Great Gray Owl. It sat erect and alert. We left the trail, circled above the juvenile, and looked down toward the nest tree. It was just a broken top with a slight hollow and hardly big enough for a 27-inch owl. The juvenile now crouched into the hollow of its broken snag was hiding in plain sight. A few minutes later Steve asked, “Did you hear that?” I admitted just barely and did not know what I was hearing. I heard the sound again. It was a soft, hardly audible whoooo. It was the owl world equivalent to Seinfeld’s quiet-talker. Steve quickly spotted the female. Sitting on a dead limb about a foot from the trunk of a Douglas fir was a gorgeously gray bird staring with big yellow-eyes. Her round head floated in turns from side to side, possibly to listen for prey or her hidden mate. Mostly, she watched us watching her. The stern softness of her intently curious gaze somehow penetrated the surrounding air, merging with the spirit of the forest. The phantom, elusive Great Gray Owl was real. Before leaving the grand sentinel, Steve attempted to mimic the soft call of the now silent female. His rendition was louder and harder than the docile sounding owl. Still, the female immediately responded with a similar but quieter whooo.
During the drive from the summit, I spotted an adult Golden Eagle. It probably spotted me first, just as had the Great Gray Owl.
Today was officially our last birding day, the end of a long trip that began on 2 June 1962. A good way to end was to savor the green mountains and another look at the Great Gray Owls. Linda and I were on the PCT in mid-afternoon, weary that the dark clouds above could bring down a deluge any moment. Rain last night made the trail softer and more slippery than yesterday. The spring rains had choked the streams and filled the southern Oregon reservoirs, a far cry from late March fraught with predictions of a drought. We also worried that a heavy and cold rain would be hard on the juvenile owls.
Near the nesting site, we heard a screeching sound, a sound identical to a calling juvenile heard yesterday. The same juvenile in the same tree eyed us alertly as we approached. Unlike yesterday, it was standing more erect and watchful. Linda photographed the juvenile and we watched and listened for an adult. Nothing. We took turns attempting to replicate the female call; Linda’s higher voice came closer to my recollection of the female yesterday. Nothing. We decided to continue north on the trail, partly to give the owls some space and time and partly to see what was around the next bend. The clouds darkened. Returning to the nesting site, we discovered another juvenile, also at the top of a broken snag. It was twice the size of the first sibling, and even more alert, almost angry-looking, as it aimed its round face at us. We walked on up the trail past the first and diminutive juvenile, made some more pitiful attempts to entice the female, and noticed the thickening clouds scudding above the treetops. That is when an adult flew down the slope and landed in a fir about 75 feet from us. At first, it appeared to be examining us, and then it seemed to ignore us. I squeaked a few times so that it would look directly into Linda’s ready camera, then, not wishing to disturb the phantom, we trekked back to the car. We were mindful that the rain began to fall after we were snug inside. We had kept ahead or behind bad weather, found adventure, mosquitoes and chiggers, completed a decades old birding trip, and found trip species number 418. At last, a Great Gray Owl.