Sunday, January 10, 2016

First Malheur, now this

Sanderlings that don't actually feature in this depressing post.
I am the first to acknowledge that my life is insanely soft. I live in a house I love with a man I love and with a cat I worship and there’s heat and electricity and tea with tea sandwiches and a little backyard in which I can sit quietly, most of the time, although occasionally the well-enough-mannered children across the alley play their version of basketball or dogs being walked in the alley bark and alarm Gradka as she basks in the sunshine. Some mornings, as happened earlier last week, I go outside to fill the feeders and find clear evidence that a hawk had junco for dinner the day before. But that’s the nature of nature and it’s not happy but I accept that hawks have to eat just as teenagers have to throw basketballs and some people inexplicably prefer dogs to cats.

My job may have me thinking about finding a psychiatrist willing to prescribe these days, but I know it’s a pretty pleasant job and possibly, knowing that my mother was mistaken in her belief that the New Yorker would want to publish me, in my youth, like as not, I’d have been happy to daydream about having my current job, given enough Vaseline on the lens. Maybe. Let’s move on as this paragraph isn’t building the way it’s supposed to.

 I’ve done a pretty decent job of avoiding political news, and I tell myself that writing checks is a fine way for me to ease the suffering of a handful of the millions of human beings in less happy circumstances. But the hell of being a sentient being still bothers me more than I’d like. Taking an interest in birds has been a nice distraction and generally it’s a calming topic. Oh, there’s the hell of habitat degradation and that whole climate change issue and, yes, okay, a whole host of depressing bits of business that can quickly make the bird business more fraught once you move beyond the visitors in your own backyard and, even then, you get the occasional slaughter.

 But, you know, reading the Tweeters list is something that I expect will fill me with envy on occasion (“This person saw a barn owl at the Fill! I’ve never seen a barn owl! I go there all the time!”), but I don’t expect it to make me suicidal. But the last week or two that has been changing. It was via the Tweeters list that I heard about the bastards taking over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (For me, I am willing to step away from the “are they militia, armed white guys, or terrorists” question and just call them bastards. And I hope horrible fates await each and every one of them.) But even that, possibly, was better than what today’s Tweeter report included:

Spotted the NHOW [northern hawk owl] soon after arriving. Home owner had posted a sign stating no photographs so out of respect for that we went up the road a bit. Stayed for only a few minutes. As we were ready to leave a truck pulled up to the driveway and the man inside appeared to write down our license plate as we drove past. We left the area to bird Cassimer Bar waterfront for about an hour. Before leaving for home we drove through the area to see if the owl had moved so that a photo could be taken. What we saw instead was what appeared to be the owl hanging by one foot, upside down dead from the tree. We remembered hearing a gunshot a short while earlier. No pictures taken. We felt it best to leave the area. Feeling sick.

This northern hawk owl has been the buzz of Tweeters for several days now, with reports of the homeowner saying that he didn’t want photos taken of his property. Some people argued (sensibly, I’m sure) that you can’t prevent people from photographing what can be seen from a public street. Many people stressed the importance of respecting locals’ privacy and following their wishes. I likely didn’t think that much about it one way or another though I did point out to Scott that it was “only a three-and-a-half hour drive,” and I thought about how maybe we should try to get to Okanogan some day because it seems like people see a lot of nice birds in that area.

 But now. Yes, I do feel sick. Why should this fine bird be killed because some crazy person doesn’t like to have strangers park across the street from his property? Undoubtedly some of the birders were badly behaved. Having witnessed a group of photographers hound a long-eared owl last year, I know that they are capable of behaving badly. But why does the bird have to be the one to end up dead in this situation? Why do human beings have to be such self-willed agents of death and destruction?

I thought that maybe writing about it would make me understand or at least feel less miserable but that’s really not happening. It’s back to Mr Trollope for me because fiction written a century and a half ago is perhaps the only safe place to be.


  1. While whoever shot the owl was a bastard through and through, I also believe that competitive listers and others who go out of their way to chase rarities are not doing those birds any favors. I can't honestly claim that I would never try to see a reported rarity, but I would think long and hard first about the circumstances and if I had any doubt at all about the bird's safety, I'd steer clear. I wish the birding community would stop focusing so much of finding unusual birds, and just enjoy the ones around them.

    We had fabulous birds in the Skagit today -- incredibly beautiful day. Not a rarity among them, and all the better for that.

    1. Yes and yes. Have the snow geese returned in large numbers to the Skagit? And did you see the adorable short-eared owl ("Mr January" as it is known around here) today? -m.

    2. We saw only a relatively small group of Snow Geese, and weren't able to get close. We did see Short-eared Owls -- about as far away as the one you photographed, judging by the way mine turned out. We had quite a few Dunlin, who were fun to watch in flight, and a lovely Rough-legged Hawk, and a Northern Shrike that posed ever so nicely.

    3. I'm looking forward to the daily unfolding on your blog--and I love your dunlin photos. My friend Jennie Grant saw some trumpeters at Madrona Beach this last weekend; maybe that will be my next in-town destination. I'll just bet that some of the generic hawks we saw a few weeks ago were your rough-legged friend. If there are owls, that's all I truly register.