A cacophony of Canada Jays in a rage shakes the somnolence of midday within a wild forest of towering, leaning, breathing incense cedars, Douglas, Pacific silver, and noble firs, western hemlocks, and white pines. The chatters and shrieks crash the stillness like a scuffle in a temple’s inner sanctum.
Here, on the ancient forest loop near Oregon’s Breitenbush hot springs, here where Wes and I intersected the Spotted Owl Trail after crossing a log footbridge over the clear river flowing across a mosaic of polished rocks the colors of salmon and deer, and here where the trail steepens and the forest deepens, all hell breaks loose.
The jays are mobbing a no longer napping owl. From our vantage, we can’t tell how many jays–at least three.
We want the stocky silhouette to be a Spotted Owl, the signature and threatened bird dependent on these few last remaining and intact elder forests of the Pacific Northwest. The owl fumes away through the emerald dappled light. Shimmering spider webs form miniature hammocks suspended between massive trunks. The raven size plus streaky patterns suggest a Barred Owl. Bullying jays pursue with what sounds like gleeful banter. There’s no peace for the night-shift bird trying to get some shut-eye.
Only four days later, I’m strolling the campground loop of Fort Ebey State Park on Whidbey Island in the San Juans. Dusk has not yet fallen in the fir and cedar forest. A few other campers are setting up tents, leveling RVs, or spreading out checkered tablecloths on damp picnic tables. Just ahead I hear another bird rumble, this time a gang of chorusing robins and their sounds are not the cheery-up, cheery-up song, but the emphatic Chip Chup chip! Chichirrup! Chuk! Chuk!
The Barred Owl perches only 30 feet away and 15 feet up on a scrawny limb right over the road. I shuffle closer…
The streaky, fluffed up breast is a bit disheveled, like any daytime sleeper awakened. The owl stares first toward the robins. I watch the round feathered head swivel like a well-oiled gear. Black unblinking eyes stare from within a facial disk that collects sound. The disrupted owl flaps over to a campsite on muted wings. Right away I hear voices, “An owl! Do you see the owl?”
The message to nocturnal owls in the daytime in spring and early summer? Good luck finding a quiet roost. Everywhere, smaller birds are courting, nesting and raising young. They can be fiercely protective of their precious eggs and chicks. And yes, Barred Owls do hunt for birds (even as big as a grouse). Their tastes are epicurean–from voles, rabbits, amphibians, reptiles, and insects to fish. While dusk and night hunters, Barred Owls aren’t above a daytime snack.
Meanwhile, Barred Owls have their own eggs and chicks to guard from intruders. Nesting in a cavity of a big beautiful older tree with soft heartwood yielding to many life forms, or on a stick nest platform built by a hawk or other large bird, the parents remain vigilant, as well as loyal to each other– likely pairing for life. The wild hooting of Whoooo Cooks for youuuu?” becomes riotous when shooing away the greatest threat, a Great-Horned Owl.
As darkness falls on Whidbey Island and I’m curled up in a comfy bed in my pop-up camper, the night shift birds awaken. At last, the flying owls are free to sweep the stars and sing the blues.
Note–pay attention when outside whenever you hear an outburst of birds. They might be mobbing an owl…