Sunday, November 25, 2007

Nuthatches, a Redtail, and the Owl Who Wasn't


This White-breasted Nuthatch had this eye always closed three days ago as he went about his business. Between he and One Eye the squirrel, I'd begun to think I was running a feeding station for visually challenged wildlife. But Whitey's eye looks fine today and he's speeding around foraging for invertebrates and hatching those sunflower seeds into bark crevices looking healthy as ever.


Speaking of bark, could Whitey look anymore like bark? Note how his feather set makes him look as if he had crevices. And how his back takes on a perpendicular similar to that of a tree.

Now why is the coloring so different for a Red-breasted Nuthatch who forages in a similar manner to a White-breast? What is the evolutionary advantage to a rusty breast and a
bluish-gray back? There are several variations on this combination. Think of a Bluebird? How about a Tufted Titmouse?
I used to think that the black stripes over eyes in birds might have an anti-glare advantage similar to that sought by football players who apply black make-up under their eyes. That might have something to do with it but now I'm also leaning towards the if-I-have-black-eyes-in-a-black background-it's-much-harder-to-see-where-I'm-looking theory.

The lay of the three colors of feather on the back of his head is really quite beautiful.
This afternoon Marian Anderson who I went hawking with yesterday, called. She said she'd heard from her son who'd been deer hunting, who'd heard from a deer hunting friend, where an Owl had been roosting this morning. No ID made, just an Owl, but we were told where it had been in the woods, so maybe?
No. We had things we really needed to do, but then again...
Both of us having spent most of the day on the drudgery of check book balancing, government forms, and other kinds of indoor torture at my kitchen table, I looked at Marian and said, "Let's go look for the Owl".
We leap into the car, as fly outs don't wait. Hustle down country roads and then there is another of those shimmering white Red-tail bellies gleaming from an electrical pole. We almost don't stop as the sun is getting that orange glow. But we can't resist and pull over into the gravel on the side.
And once again the minute I pulled equipment from the car, our red tailed quarry flew across the road. The wind blew the tripod; the cold froze our fingers. The Red-tail glided along the tops of the cut corn stalks looking for prey, then up a bit and settled into a very brushy tree.
She waited, she triangulated, leaned forward and was off her perch yet again, with a swoop and then coming up empty, she flew to a third tree beyond an irrigation arm. Or we thought she did. It took us what seemed like forever to find her. She's quite clever at looking like a part of a tree.

Oh! The Owl! Back in the car and heading for Wade's Woods we go. It's 80 acres of trees sandwiched between a road and a bean field.
Let's see, Brandon said take the dirt road, it looks more like a rather wide dirt path. He has a jeep and we don't. Marian's car is wider, though it also has four wheel drive. She's takes the plunge onto the muddy path and down into the woods. We pretend not to hear the scratching of branches on her rosy red car enamel.
Then, he'd told Marian, go through the woods to the other side where the gate crosses the path, before the bean field. There's the gate. We jockey back and forth attempting to get the car headed back in the correct direction so later we don't have to turn it around and possibly run into a tree doing it in the dark.
Nothing so far.
Marian says, "Look. Hear it?" Thunk, tunk, tunk. It's a Downy Woodpecker above our heads giving the branch a work out.
The Owl! Right. Down to the gate, then retrace your steps 20 paces, then turn left into the woods and walk 10 paces through the brambles. Marian decides clogs might not have been the best choice, but she's game. We scan. Nothing.
Marian asks, "What level would it be sitting." I say, "That depends and besides we don't even know if we're looking for a Screech Owl in a cavity or a Great-horned on a branch. Most likely somebody on a branch." More scanning.
Then it occurs to me. "Ah, Marian."
She says, "Yes."
"Ah Marian, are guys still hunting at this time of day?

She says, "Sure." And then turns and looks at me. Our eyes meet.
Here we are standing in the brush in the middle of the woods where we know people have been hunting all day, without a speck of fluorescent orange on.
I'm wearing olive drab, navy blue and indigo with my rufous hair. Marian, is wearing gray and tawny yellow. Either of us could conceivably be taken for a deer if all that was seen by a hunter was movement and a blotch of warm color though the flora.
But we're cool. We keep scanning the trees for our Owl. Nothing. Nothing in fact but a few geese flying far, far overhead. Not a squirrel, not our Woodpecker, not a rustle or tweet or flutter. They all know there are hunters in the woods and have hunkered down for the duration of hunting season. Or so it seems. It's quiet. Excruciatingly quiet.
And what four legged, fleet, and being-hunted-at-the-moment-animal might we sound like when we tromp back to the road? Hmmm?
I have a real urge to whistle. I do, a few notes. Not much. Wouldn't want it to be too obvious that I'm attempting to not sound like a deer.
At that point Marian turns around and says to the air loudly, "I'm not a deer."
Soon we're both loudly proclaiming to the air, "I'm not a deer!"
But we're cool. We decide the Owl isn't happening and we tromp sedately back through the brambles to the road. There is conversation now. Conversation that might just be pitched a touch louder than necessary.
When we get to the road and before turning left to the car, I look right, past the gate, and the bean field and I remember. I remember that the first Oak in that row on the far side of the field holds the nest of the Wade's resident hawk, Christopher Red-tail. And that these woods are full of Jack-in-the-pulpit in another season. Even now through the snow melt there are deep lush spreads of exquisite jewel green moss on the tree roots, and little two inch ferns that peep through tiny drifts of snow that melt drop by drop into moist earth.
The quiet and the circle of seasons are complete. It doesn't matter a bit that there is no owl. At least not today, anyway. Because today has been good already.
Donegal Browne




1 comment:

Karen Anne said...

I'm always just stunned at how hunters seen to shoot anything under the impression that it might possibly be a deer.

For awhile I was thinking good for our gene pool when they shot each other, but sadly they often seem to shoot innocent humans as well as wildlife.

Here it is open season on some type of bird, so early in the mornings I hear guns going off, and know some creature is probably dying.

This is what happens when I move from vegetarian heaven in CA to a rural New England area.