Not long ago Winging It, the ABA newsletter, announced that someone hit 700 without visiting Alaska. That must feel good, but clearing the 400 mark was great, and the 500th species checked was likewise more than delightful. In fact, each bird brings several ounces of sheer giddiness, pounds of accomplishment. Even a new species found by dumb luck brought a round of hedonistic applause. Regardless of the number of life birds a birder finds, birders continue to try for yet another species. One such birder is Paul Sykes, who I enjoyed conversing with when he occasionally visited the museum. Then, he had a day job also. It was then not apparent or I was not paying enough attention to realize Paul is a gung ho birder. He did not brag about his numbers. According to the Milestones section in Winging It, Paul hit 850 life species in the ABA area in 2005. Wow!
Is the number of species a kind of score in the sport of birding? Not really. Well not exactly. How many birders helped Paul, you or me get that much wanted species, and how many birders delight in knowing someone found so many birds. Except for some big years and big days, most of us are competing with only ourselves. Of course, it is not that simplistic. Not having enough money and time hampers most from giving chase to all those glorious species. Besides skill, which is obtained mostly by doing something repeatedly, a certain amount of luck is needed. Luck is mostly dependent on being at the right place at the right time, which requires some knowledge about the habits and habitats of birds and sometimes it is just plain luck. Dumb luck. Some waif, looking for home or suitable habitat, just happens to perch in front of you. Of course, that does not happen often. Mostly, we are out there hoping we are searching the correct places and during the best times.
Part of the luck factor depends on the difficulty in finding a given species. That is based on the abundance of the bird, its environment and likelihood of the bird getting in the area (e.g., Falcated Duck wintering in Oregon) and a few other what if factors. The ABA even devised a so-called difficulty code for each species found in the area. The codes range from 1 to 6, 1 being the easiest to find and 6 being impossible because the species is extinct. There are close to 500 species in the easy category. I happen to be missing 13 species in that catagory. Seven of them would be easy in Alaska. A couple should not be difficult in the Southeast. With luck, in the category of category 1, five of the 13 are on a hit list for a trip this coming July. Category 2 includes about 140 species, 37 of which are missing from my ABA list. Possibly 5 of the 37 could be found this July on a trip to Banff and northern Washington. Many of the 37 will require trips to SE Arizona and well-planned pelagic cruises. I have seen 15 of the 45 or so category 3 species. Hope springs eternal for Connecticut Warbler and Boreal Owl this summer. Category 4 includes 74 species. Four are on my life list, including Red-necked Stint. In 1962, Jon Alquist, Paul Savage and I documented the first record of this species for the contiguous U.S. The others, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Black-capped Gnatcatcher and Clay-colored Robin were added in 2005. Category 5 consists of 155 species. In 1962, I saw the first U.S. record of a category 5 Zenaida Dove. Sandy Sprunt photographed it. Then, there was the Flame-colored Tanager nesting outside our cabin door in Madera Canyon. What an easy bird. Once again, being at the right time and place is seeing the bird or not. That was the case of Linda seeing a category 5 White-throated Robin in the lower Rio Grande in 2005. At the time, I was standing inside the air-conditioned visitor center in front of a fan wondering if the heat was putting an end to my life list. In addition, although I am old enough to have seen a category 6 species, I have not. My closest encounter with a species of 6th kind was Bachman’s Warbler a day in the fall of 1962 already lamented in chapter 1.
While waiting for Linda’s foot to mend, we fretted about missing time out of doors. Between the frets, we managed a few bouts to the local sewage ponds where Least and Western Sandpipers stopped by for a rest. One day a motley looking Black-bellied Plover watched us watching it. This was a perfect place to bird for a three-legged couple; the rule of the often-stinky establishment was no one was to get out of their vehicle. That seemed a great rule owing to what might be stuck on the bottom of an unsuspecting shoe. It also suited us since the foot doctor did not want Linda walking, especially anywhere near muck so loved by the shorebirds. On a few visits to the offal establishment, I wandered out on my own, driving the empty car while Linda stayed home. That arrangement was not nearly as much fun, especially for Linda. We had more fun being three legged birders.
While we waited to get our forth leg, there might be a chance of adding a new species or two without looking out the window, let alone going out of state. There were good chances for several species to be added to the ABA area without a bird even flying into the region. The American Ornithologist’s Union could almost anytime deliver a new species with a vote by the check-list committee. Actually, the arrival of any such voted upon species would not be official until the publication of the AOU supplement to the check-list. That event happens about every year in the July issue of the Auk, the journal of the AOU. The results of a vote would be based on taxonomic data. For example, it seems that data will soon convince the committee that Brant actually consist of at least two species, Black Brant and White-bellied Brant. Other species might be split. The boreal trips to southern Alberta and northern Washington and later to Alaska that we hope to make might provide a potential of not just Spruce Grouse, but also Franklin’s Grouse, Timberline Sparrow might be split from Brewer’s Sparrow and no telling how many “species” of Red Crossbill could be added to the life list. Beside a grouse, a possible sparrow, most likely unidentifiable crossbills and an extra brant, there are a couple of other taxonomic problems that, when solved, could goose a life list. On the plate, birders might be served the Tule Goose (as of 2006, a subspecies of the White-fronted Goose).
In addition to the relatively new Cackling Goose, a split from the larger Canada Goose, there could be more. After all, it is possible that a subspecies today, such as Branta canadensis hutchinsii, will be the next taxa recognized by AOU and ABA as a species. Thanks to Dick Banks, there could have been even more subspecies of Canada Geese to sort through and figure out which went with what species. A few years before I retired, Dick showed me a thick manuscript by a not particularly known person from a college located somewhere in the east-central United States. Anonymity of the person and his institution is important as the author of the manuscript had named but poorly characterized over 30 new subspecies of Canada Geese. Most were based on too few specimens, did not take into account individual variation and alleged differences between the new subspecies were too similar to allow identification.
If an editor had published these newly proposed names, all of them would have to be accepted as valid until proven otherwise. Evaluating so many subspecies that were based, really, on individual variation, not geographic variation, would have been truly daunting. Who would want to take on such a task? I had had my fill of evaluating subspecies, having been encouraged to evaluate Harry C. Oberholser’s 30 some new subspecies he proposed in his two-volume tome on Texas birds published posthumously in 1974. Then later, I tackled the other new names of North American birds proposed since 1957, a contribution I hoped would help in a forthcoming AOU checklist. The paper was finished; the AOU checklist on subspecies was not. Since Dick is responsible for working on the taxonomy of Anatidae for the committee, it looked promising that he would be the one to evaluate the new geese, should the manuscript be published. There was no ducking the situation. Fortunately, Dick made a trip to talk personally to the aging author of all those new inspired geese. A couple of days later, Dick returned to the museum. Reason had prevailed. Publication of the manuscript would not happen. Dick and I believed that, but later would see the text as a posthumous publication.
Aside from goose problems, some of the other potential splits that would require AOU pronouncement, if and when they come to fruition, could add another dozen species. I had already observed birds representing some of the splits. For example, I witnessed the Dusky and Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows. I made it a point to find them since the two were recognized as full species in the early 60s when I viewed them through clouds of mosquitoes. With some self-satisfaction, I knew my ABA list was ready for other potential species I had found over the years. Seeing double, so to speak, I saw Oregon and Canada Jays, Ultramarine and Couch’s Jays, Eastern and Western Marsh-Wrens, Golden and Yellow Warblers and four “kinds” of Fox Sparrows. Swainson’s and Russet-backed Thrushes seemed a good possibility. Not too long ago during breeding season, I captured both in a mist net. A peek in the literature reveals other reasons for splitting the current Swainson’s Thrush. Of course, there are several possible splits involving populations that I have not seen. For example, I have been fortunate, after decades of searching in my own Oregon back yard to see a Spotted Owl, and I have not seen the Spotted Owl in the Southwest. Another arduous climb up Arizona’s Scheelite Canyon needs scheduling. Whether the two owls are determined to be different species requires more investigation. That is essentially true for most of the so-called potential splits. Even so, it is fun searching for and identifying the various “kinds” of birds, whether they are subspecies or species. The brown-throated House Wren was missed on a stormy day in the mountains of southeastern Arizona. Maybe the owl will be a new species and someday I might check off Brown, with a capital, throated Wren. A jaunt to southern California in winter might help add Large-billed Sparrow. A kind of “Savannah” Sparrow was seen in San Diego in early May 2005. It fit what some call the Belding’s Sparrow, a taxon genetically related the large-billed birds.
While dreaming of trips and birds to come, I wondered if I could pick up a new life bird close to home. It would certainly be easier on the bank account, with gasoline prices rising seemingly higher each hour. I dug out the local county checklist, the one I consulted on a few years after retiring in the county. A list of 317 species showed relative abundance, with infrequent comments such as “5 records” or “specimen,” was based on an annotated checklist I put together early in my career and observations by others since then. Actually, I began the manuscript about the time I was becoming a short-timer in the Navy. As I completed a new species account, I gladly checked off another day in the service of Uncle Sam’s war machine. The county checklist, “The distribution and occurrence of the birds of Jackson County, Oregon, and surrounding areas” was number 70 of the Department of Interior’s North American Fauna. My meager 1975 publication joined the fray with North American Fauna number 69, the “Natural History of the Swainson’s Warbler” by Brooke Meanley. I was more familiar with Number 63, the one on Trumpeter Swans by Winston Banko. I read that more than twice, preparing myself for a 1962 visit to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge where I saw my first Trumpeter Swans.
In 1975, I only was beginning to appreciate that North American Fauna issue number one was published in the late 1800’s. In 1975, I was definitely appreciating Dick Bank’s editorial expertise and help putting my home county on the map. Fast forwarding to the present and much abbreviated list, I wondered if there was something listed as a regular occurring species that I had never seen. There was one. I had never seen a Flammulated Owl.
My old annotated list did not even include Flammulated Owl. This is a species apparently overlooked in Oregon. Certainly, I had overlooked it, despite my looking. In fact, Linda and I stumbled in the darkened Cascades in 2005 just to hear the hoot of a Flammulated Owl. Nothing was heard except the imagined strains of Mussorgsky as we lurched into the darkness of the moonless night, tripping over conifers stunted by their young age during our night on a not so bald mountain. Jim Livaudais, an astute photographer and birder, Forest Service biologist Norm Barrett, Linda, and I gradually ascended the narrow meadow of the otherwise forested slope. Years of open range cattle had pitted the meadow with sometimes-deep holes made by the heavy hoofs waltzing across a once wet meadow. Now, the springs that once oozed cool water down into the meadow were dry. We worried about irregular terrain, not fresh cow patties; the beasts had not yet been given their free range this year. We worried about what else might be out there, but mostly we worried whether we would find Flammulated Owls. The new county checklist showed a thin line between 1 April through September and a small “b” in the comments. That meant Flammulated Owls are rare but regular breeding birds. The experience on the mountain certainly bore out the “rare” part.
In 2006, looking across the Rogue Valley floor, I could see the snow whitened slopes 10 miles away. When growing up in the valley, I recall that it was difficult to see snow on the slopes unless it had just fallen or cold enough to cling to the trees. Now, I could see huge white patches much lower than ever. It was not that the snow level was so low in elevation. It was that the trees were gone, leaving the ground exposed. Disappearance of the trees was a product called harvesting. In fact, the ridge tops were lower or at the very best, jagged. Instead of seeing a smooth line of trees on the ridges, I could see individual trees and clumps of trees on the horizon. The gaps between the standing trees held the stumps of firs and pines. A couple of the slopes were white with vertical lines of gray, as if a painter brushed tiny blurry streaks in the snow. Viewed closer, it was clear that the gray lines in the snow were the ghostly trunks of burnt conifers.
I imagined driving into the mountains as far as possible, and waiting in the cold for the low hoot of a Flammulated Owl, but of course the species would be wintering far to the south. My mind turned back a few too many years when I recall correcting numerous mistakes in a paper on owls, the same paper that the author penned “Don’t give a hoot” as part of a secondary title. It wasn’t funny considering he had specimens and specimen data mixed up to the point of ridiculousness. For example, a specimen from museum x was actually from museum y, sexes were sometimes incorrect and locality data would have caused any man to consult a map and ask for directions. The author was lost, and later I published corrections to the mess. In another paper, I determined that one of the two subspecies the author of the owl paper named for the Flammulated Owl was not recognizable. Joe Marshall, the owl expert himself and just a couple of doors down from my office agreed. Joe and I also agreed that one of the new subspecies was definitely identifiable. Flammulated Owl reminisces were not getting me any closer to finding a live one, giving a hoot or two, somewhere in the mountains now covered with snow. I called Norm, who tried to show Flammulated Owls to Linda and me last year. He said sure, but not until late June at the earliest.
So, how am I to deal with lifer fever until late June? A quick review of potential taxonomic splits revealed that there might be a shake up with Sage Sparrows. One of my favorite colleagues, Ned Johnson, had joined forces with A. J. Marten and chronicled their findings on the genetics of the sparrows in a 1992 paper (Condor 94:1-19). When the paper came out, I was still working at the museum. Of course, I dug out a few specimens and could see that there were definite differences between some of the populations. More recently, Carla Cicero and Ned’s 2006 paper (Auk 123:266-274) discussed geographic variation in Sage Sparrows. No longer receiving the Auk, Dick Banks mailed me a photocopy. Lots had changed since 1992. Ned, who was on the AOU Check-list committee eventually resigned. He told me would rather research than wrangle. Regrettably, Ned died of cancer a couple of years ago. I had mentally planned a trip to Berkeley in the coming years, enjoying the thought of seeing Ned again. The committee, still chaired by Dick, now includes Carla and a few others.
Ned‘s spirit, thanks to Carla in 2006, was speaking to the ornithological community once again. The conclusion is that the two interior subspecies, contrary to some authors, definitely differ. In a tantalizing postscript, Ned and Carla ask whether the two taxa are biological species. The AOU Check-list already noted that the western California birds, scientifically speaking, Amphispiza belli belli, the nominate subspecies, has been considered specifically distinct from the interior birds. The nominate birds, given the moniker Bell’s Sparrow breeds only a little over a couple of hours south of home. I could go there, see the birds, and wait for the check-list committee to come to their, well, conclusion.
Linda had urged me for years to drop my sentimentality for my original binocs to buy new binoculars and what a better way to test them by seeing a potentially new lifer. Of course, I was confident that I could recognize a Bell’s Sparrow with my old $40. 7 X 35 prisms. I had identified literally thousands of individual birds and hundreds of species with my cheap binoculars. Last year, in Panama, someone looking at my old glasses committed that they had that brand many years ago. I smiled while keeping my vigil through the trusty lenses. Then I turned, and asked, “Did you get a good look at the Northern Bentbill?” “Where,” they said. Although my trusty binocs remained in alignment despite hard knocks against cliff faces, although the black metal was scarred silver, and although the right optic lens was difficult to focus, they remained my best birding tool. The new ones, 10 X 42, cost considerably more than $40. I’m not going to reveal their actual cost or their make and model. Posturing that my binoculars are bigger than yours reminds me of my days when subscribing to a magazine on stereo reproduction of music. Being an audiophile and lover and composer of classical music, I too was looking for the “holy grail” of sound reproduction. One article recommended how necessary it was to purchase what I recall were some sort of small stones that when placed in exactly in the right spots in your listening room, would make you believe you were in the best seat of the best concert hall. The moral to the story, insofar as binoculars, you can drive yourself crazy and broke while your birding buddy who cares less will see just as many or more birds. I just hope that I live long enough to identify as many birds with my new optics as I did with my old reliable pair. Could placing some special stones in just the right location get me ABA 600?
Driving south into California in mid-May 2006 is exciting and hot. Once over the Siskiyou Mountains, a good view of Mt. Shasta reminds me of change. In 1964 or was it 1965 dear diary, about 10 summer employees from Crater Lake National Park started the climb of the white domed Mt. Shasta. The volcanic mountain stands nearly 10,000 feet above surrounding mountains. It rests on the Cascade Mountains, north of Mt. Lassen, an active volcano as late as 1915 and near the southern end of the Cascades. The Sierra Nevada, unlike the Cascades, is extruded blocks of granite (my apologies to geologist). As we trudged up Mt. Shasta, different members of our climbing party began dropping out in synch with gains in elevation. Three, including yours truly, reached the 14,162 foot summit a little after noon. Perhaps some of my earlier climbs up Mt. McLoughlin, Theilson and other Cascade summits helped shape this day. The view from the top of Mt. Shasta was grand, expansive and unworldly, with generous panorama in every direction. It was awesome looking down on the valleys from where I had so long admired the lofty summit. The view was also short-lived. In seconds, we were standing in a white-out. The only thing that was not white was the faint bluish holes left by our crampons and fainter marks from our ice axes. Bending over, with straining eyes, these small marks in an otherwise white world were our bread crumbs to escape the freezing and windy summit. Luckily, it didn’t snow and cover the marks left by the crampons. About 1500 feet or so from the summit, shapes, including each other’s, began to relieve the tension. We made it back without much incident; one of the three, not me, had trouble with his knees. About 40 years later, my knees likewise sometimes made mountain descents difficult. Today, as I drive past the huge monolith, I remember its glaciers. There are seven, and they are, contrary to unfortunate expectations generated by global warming, expanding. Mt. Shasta’s location is ripe for catching Pacific sodden clouds and reaping snow that feeds the glaciers with a 30% increase in growth. Mt. Rainier, hundreds of miles to the north in Washington is not so well situated and its glaciers decrease by 24%. Glaciers in Glacier National Park and the Sierra Nevada are decreasing at a staggering rate of 66%. No birds were seen on the Mt. Shasta snow, we were too busy trying to breath. I thought I saw a couple of gray squirrels scampering on some rocks at the summit. It must have been the strain and lack of oxygen that had squirreled my brain.
Meanwhile, back on I-5, 2006, the drive to the target bird was almost complete. Bob Yutzy of Redding provided three places to look for Bell’s Sparrow. As instructed, I pick my way through Redding and drive southwest on a county road through tiny towns of Igo (pronounced eye-go) and Ono (Oh-no). Armed with maps, my new binocs and my old trusties under the driver seat, I pull into the first site before 9:30 a.m. It felt good to get from behind the wheel. I stretch and play a recording I copied from one of my CDs. The song is of an interior population of Sage Sparrow. Maybe it would work. However, the first two localities, each within a few miles on one another, lack suitable habitat that burned a couple of years ago.
It is going to be one of the hottest days of the season. The narrow paved road winds high into the mountains, but not high enough to cool. Every few miles barricades block parts of lanes that had broken away because the roadbed had sunk. The lanes were narrow and there was little space to pull off. However, one place looks promising. A bird, a sparrow, jumps from the chaparral. It is a Bell’s Sparrow, my new binocular’s first potential life species. By now, the thermometer had pushes into the high 90s and my gasometer sinks toward the unhappy side of a quarter of a tank. The next town is Platina, which means little silver and pronounced, I am told, Pla-TINA. Buoyed by my new potential life bird, I ignore how desperate it might seem to be looking for a bird that is not officially a species. I head east for the interstate and then north for home.
Linda and I had planned a summer trip that would potentially feed the life list. That journey was a couple of months away. Local birding offered some respite, and, you never know when something out of the ordinary might show up. Migration was still going on and I enjoyed a pond that not only unusually attracted Purple Martins, but also a single Bank Swallow. A swallow sweep in a single day in southwestern Oregon was unusual. A couple of days later two birder friends, Jim Livaudais and Norm Barrett, had a swift trifecta on Lower Table Rock, a mesa overlooking the Rogue River. One was the common Vaux’s Swift (Voze or Vox, tomato, tomato) was joined by Black and White-throated swifts. Blacks may breed at a falls many miles up the river in the Cascades. The White-throated Swift may breed on the mesa cliffs but everyone is guessing. Later, I made the steep climb to the flat-toped Lower Table Rock for some swift birding. The expansive summit once had an airplane runway on it, built by the military during World War II since the valley airport was often socked in by thick ghostly fog during the winter. The runway had become a trail that brought hikers, birders, wildflower enthusiasts, and the general gawking public across the flat rock. The trail up the side, courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, was unseasonably cool on my first climb. Not even a Vaux’s Swift was around.
Determined, my second climb up the mesa a couple of weeks later was accompanied by swirling clouds hanging on the black basalt cliffs. The early morning sun began to dry out the floating moisture for a clear view of the valley about a thousand feet below. From a plane and maps, it was apparent that the vertical edges of the mesa were anything but regular. Timely erosion had eaten away sections and spared others. The rough scalloping shape allows me to observe some of the dark cliff faces from another more projecting section. Getting close to the edge was a palm sweating experience, and I stayed back from the edge far enough that if I tripped, I wouldn’t plummet to my death. After all, White-throated Swift should not be the last thing I see in life.
As it turned out, I did see and hear, ever so briefly at least one, maybe two, White-throated Swifts. An anxious Peregrine Falcon, fussed until I was out of sight. A handful of Rock Wrens sang and Rufous Hummingbirds fanned a blooming patch of Manzanita. To punctuate my listing doldrums, a walk through the cemetery a few blocks from home, other than a project of singing House Wrens, was as quiet as its prone residents.
Birding requires patience and waiting. In that respect, birding differs little from fishing, hunting, a good meal, a loving relationship, life in general. Similar to watching or playing a sport involving a ball, golf, hockey (including ice hockey that uses essentially a flattened ball), football, we birders, dogs, small boys and men, are chasing a roundish object that bounces from place to place. We attempt to catch the object and make a goal. That really seems to be the reason birding could be considered a sport. My goal is to find 700 species in the ABA area, hopefully before I reach the age 70. In the meantime, playoffs were in progress for a northern continent list, a world life list, not to mention county year lists.
World lists might suggest that international travel was in the itinerary, but the reality of life meant that limitations are set on everything. Those lucky enough to chuckle at anyone trying to achieve 700 ABA species or gleefully announcing they exceeded 1,000 life birds, are fortunate indeed. Many of those who have had the opportunity to hit goals beyond the dreams of others have paved the way for everyone. Where would ecotourism in remote and birdy places be without those who could afford traveling to and pioneering at those mouthwatering places. Life lists with empty check marks and fantastic places to bird spring eternal hope. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, in good old ABA territory, there are plenty of birds and wonderful locations to see them sing, migrate, breed and generally hide from curious birders.
That last thought brings back the circle from marveling how someone saw 700 species without going to Alaska, Linda’s foot mending and spring pushing winter up the mountain slopes. By now, my love was walking but not doctor approved to trek up a rough trail, and the snow had mostly shrunk to all but the highest elevations. It was time, the walrus said, as my late friend Allan Phillips oft quoted Gilbert and Sullivan, to think once again about Flammulated Owls.
Norm Barrett calls to ask if I want to try for Flammulated Owls on Huckleberry Mountain. Yes. Maybe the owl could be my 600th ABA species.
The route to the turn off was a familiar one. About 40 years ago during two summers, I bunked with rangers, naturalist and fire control staff in a log building a few feet from Crater Lake National Park headquarters. Sometimes I would drive what was the 79 miles to my parents in the Rogue Valley. My little metallic green Austin-Healy Sprite hugged every corner as I raced down the narrow two-lane ribbon from former Mount Mazama. The curve just before the junction of the forest service road to Huckleberry Mountain was memorized. I knew just how to race into and out of it. There were few rules during the drive; one was not to exceed 75 mph on the few straight sections of pavement and to stay, most of the time, in my lane of traffic. Don’t cut corners. Some of the recommended speeds, according to the yellow highway signs, were down near the bottom of the speedometer. The sprite sailed effortlessly around the bends, all four tires occasionally skidding, controlled by precise downshifts and punching the accelerator while exiting a sharp corner. The little green bug and I did our best to avoid any embarrassing catastrophes. I prided myself in making the curvy 79 miles in less than an hour. The car never careened off the road, the police and park rangers were unaware of me straightening out scenic corners and I never harmed any wildlife. I did scare some.
Back to the present and on the way to the owl site, the Huckleberry Mountain region in the western shadow of Crater Lake National Park, I pass the presently algae sickened Lost Creek Reservoir of the Rogue River. I stopped a couple of time to look for birds. The first stop is Mill Creek Falls where Black Swifts have been seen during past resent summers. It is hot, approaching the middle 80s, as I trundle down the wide ¾ mile trail covered with wood chips toward the Rogue River. The region is Boise-Cascade property and good PR to provide a nice trail and a few signs to the river and the falls. Actually, there are two falls, 173 foot Mill Creek Falls, and the smaller more dainty 200 foot Barr Creek Falls just yards downstream, both plunging into the cascading Rogue River. Neither are Niagara in force but the lure are the swifts. Glaring through my binoculars, I first scan the misty greenery and wet volcanic rocks of first Mill then Barr Creek Falls. Nothing. Then, just as when you are looking for something and it is found at the last place you look, two Black Swifts appear high above the falls and higher above the conifer spires. Great.
The second stop is at Rogue River Gorge, a narrowing of the river that begins near the hamlet of Union Creek, a gathering of cabins and a café and store. The clear water plummets hard and cold down a natural channel carved in basalt, now polished smooth by the river. A trail offers peeks down into the forbidden chasm, a place frequented by dippers. Shortly after looking straight down onto a pair of Townsend’s Solitaires, I hear the distinctive call of an American Dipper. That would be 201 for the county year list. Something over 230 is the record, set a few years ago by Norm, who I would be meeting a couple of hours from now on Huckleberry Mountain.
Just before the forest service road to the camp site, I stop briefly to look for Black-backed Woodpeckers at a snow park. A pair nested along one of the snow trails this early spring. The nest, abandoned, looked nevertheless fresh since pitch was oozing from the wound of the cavity in the live lodgepole pine. After 20 minutes I locate one woodpecker. The family, assuming young fledged, may have been nearby, but the heat sent me back to the vehicle and onto a forest service road to cooler elevations. That dirt road is familiar. In 1962, before the phrase snow park fell in the forest, I spent a night on the same road during the beginning of a nine-month birding tour around the United States. It was 2 June and that night it snowed and rained ice. My tiny pup-tent, pitched at the edge of the road was frozen stiff the next morning. So was I. Luckily, the sun bore through remaining wispy clouds while I danced back and forth on the slick road. I fired up the gas stove, poured down black coffee and cooked breakfast. The eggs converted from sizzling to frigid in the short distance from skillet to mouth. It was miserable. There definitely were no mosquitoes that day, or, for that matter, no woodpeckers.
About an hour after my arrival at camp today, Norm Barrett guides his red pickup to the site he has used these last few years during his survey of Flammulated Owls. Last year, there were no owls to survey. Surely this year would be better. Before dark, we locate all of over a dozen nest boxes that had been placed 20 feet up tree trunks. None show any current use, although some had been pecked by woodpeckers and a couple chewed by maybe a porcupine. A couple of nest boxes have spider webs across their entrances, which was definitely not a good sign. By 9:45, when seven stars are visible, Norm’s rule for beginning the survey, we are in position. We stand high on a mountain meadow surrounded by thick conifers, not the typical habitat to find Flammulated Owls, but they had been there in previous years. A boom box belts out the coke-bottle hollow hoots, over and over, separated by pauses that were, unfortunately accompanied with utter silence. Then, suddenly, far on the ridge across the meadow an owl calls, but only once. Could it have been a Long-eared or was it a bashful Flammulated Owl? We cannot decide. Every now and then the sky flashes a subdued light that washes over the meadow. We worry that the lightening will come our way, but it is too distant to be heard. The mountain air cools beyond the chill factor of hungry mosquito swarms. We hike to the next site.
The looped tape recording of the Flammulated Owl blares out followed by silence, and then more hooting or as one field guide renders it as “pooting.” I prefer hooting since pooting, based on childhood training, was something you tried not to do in a small crowded room. Even the spell checker finds pooting unacceptable to hooting. Hooting or pooting, is moot. We do not hear another sound. At each prescribed calling station, the recorder hoots and poots, falls silent and so do the surroundings and hoots some more. Around midnight, out of calling stations and steam, we call it a night.
During the night, between fretful sleep and wakefulness, a Great Horned Owl’s muffled call breaks an otherwise crisply silent night. The Long-eared Owl Norm regularly heard during the other nights is quiet. Sooner than my body wants, the twinkling milky way and friends begin disappearing. A bird or two takes notice of the earth turning toward the sun and so did the mosquitoes outside the car. Only a couple had found the windows that were cracked open to hear owl during the night. Racing with my uncooperative boots and a full bladder, finally I stagger out the door and stumble the few yards to the outhouse so kindly provided by the forest service. My insulated flannel shirt fells warm and it shields my arms from too many watchful mosquitoes. I dab on a spot of DEET behind my ears, forehead, the back of my neck and hands. It is anti-perfume. Hermit Warblers and Chestnut-backed and Mountain chickadees are singing.
After breakfast, we head up a road that parallels the boundary of Crater Lake National Park about a mile to the west to look for Spotted Owls. No luck, and what’s more, a large dead tree has fallen across the road. We turn around and return to the campground. After bemoaning our lack of owls, especially Flammulated, I drive another forest byway named Ginkgo Road and to slightly over 6,000 feet elevation according to the trusty car altimeter. More importantly, Norm said he consistently saw Sooty Grouse along a couple of stretches of the road. On the road, I see fresh tracks suggesting someone had traveled the route earlier today. My guess is that the grouse scattered to less dangerous and certainly less dusty climes. Whatever they did, assuming there was a they, no grouse were to be seen or heard. Skunked again. The descent down Ginkgo Road to the paved highway was ever so birdless and hotter by each descending vertical foot.
Maybe there were Flammulated Owls in them there hills but not for me this time. The species is marginal at best in southern Oregon. However, my imagination and meager literature seems to support suppositions about breeding ranges were broken by an e-mail from Norm a couple of days later. He had stayed a second night. The weather was calmer, with clear skies and cooler temperatures. Flammulated Owls responded to his tape.
Was luck a factor? It would seem so. Maybe a Flammulated Owl will answer further north this coming July when Linda and I visit northern Washington. Maybe, this time next month, Flammulated Owl will be a new life bird.