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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Some B. S. from the Valley…

A spring day in the ValleyGreg Hensen ( that’s an “EN Hensen, he tells me, not to be confused with the “ON” Henson; that’s The Muppets guy) doesn’t fit the profile of your average birder. He’s wearing a long-sleeved plaid cotton shirt (not of LL. Bean manufacture), faded jeans held up by a braided leather belt, the excess, like a lolling tongue, slops over against his leg. A baseball cap, not one of those Tilley’s sun blocking canvas jobs, struggles to keep his mat of graying hair under wraps. Greg, it appears--like me—prefers to give his razor a couple days’ rest. Oh, and he drives a crew cab 4 x 4 pickup, not a Honda Element. The truck is parked off the shoulder at the end stretch of the Lower Loop Road by the slough. As I roll up, Greg is just storing a fully extended tripod in the cab. At first I think he might be a surveyor, but there’s that plaid shirt, not the customary orange vest….

The wetlands slough that wends its way west by the Fish and Game parking lot is the Valley Mecca for birders. This morning Greg has come to observe and photograph waterfowl. How appropriate, I think, as his lean, lanky frame puts me in mind of the Sleepy Hollow’s character Ichabod Crane. (Stork? Heron? Crane?)  “As soon as I got out of the truck,” he exclaims, “I frightened off a bittern.” I’m familiar with the word and know a bittern is a small, long-legged wading bird, but can’t recall seeing one here in the Valley. He informs me the bird is an American bittern. “I photographed one the other day. It didn’t seem concerned I was nearby. I watched it spear young bullfrogs, tadpoles, sticklebacks, and then preen itself.” Greg tells me he has a 5 something lens with some powerful zeros after it and is well-equipped to photograph birdlife. “What do you do with the photos?” I inquire. “Oh, the good ones I post on Flicker,” he replies. Flicker? An appropriate site for bird pictures, don’t you think?

The birders I have met in the Valley—and there have been several (for one, see “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” 4/18/2010)—I venture to say know more about the birds in our Valley than the folks who live here. Whenever I meet bird watchers, I make a point to strike up a conversation with them. It’s hard to say just what turns a person into an avid birdwatcher, but I do know they always prove to be interesting people, and I learn something new from them each time we share bird stories. Greg is no exception. He tells me about the ancient maple trees along the trails on the Fish and Game land the other side of the slough. “They make great nesting sites for Great Horned Owls,” I learn.  And the talk goes in that direction. Greg tells me about the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in B.C., a  wildlife preserve on the Fraser River estuary. “Ah, lots of waterfowl there, I imagine?” “No,” Hensen exclaims, “this year Reifel is a good place to observe Snowy owls. Last year was a ‘Boom’ year for snowies because of the peak in the lemming cycle. Most of the owlet brood of the season survived because of the surplus food supply, and the parents drove them from the territory to reduce competition for food. Many flew to the sanctuary in south B.C. for refuge.”

Our conversation proceeds “as the crow flies” to my sharing a story about a snowy owl I saw bullied in town by two or three crows, a scenario that ended with the unfortunate snowy fleeing to Buck Island for safety amid a “murder” of fifty or so of the black marauders. “Crows are smart,” Greg laughs. ( Nothing new for The Ripple in that quarter.) We both were aware of a study on crows and human facial recognition at the U. W. According to the study crows that are intimidated or harassed by certain humans, store the image of the offender’s face and any subsequent intercourse with that individual calls down the wrath of the entire rookery on that unfortunate physiognomy. Greg throws a story back at me. A friend of his, aggravated by the incessant crow ruckus in his backyard, decided to cast stones at the offenders and drive them off. After the initial stoning, whenever the perpetrator appeared on his porch or in the yard, his face became a “wanted” poster and the observant crows would call in their cousins, raise such an outcry the “stoner” had to return indoors to quiet the uproar.

Our bird stories soared on to eagles. I told Greg the story of the two friends who canoed from the headwaters of the Connecticut River to its estuary on the Long Island Sound (Two Coots in a Canoe: the Story of an Unusual Story of Friendship). Along the way the canoeists bed and breakfasted at the home of an avid eagle watcher. She showed them a closed circuit video feed from a bird cam Wildlife officials set up by an eagles’ nest. The strangest response resulted, she told them. Instead of hearing from fascinated viewers, the Wildlife center received angry calls from cat lovers complaining about the detritus in the nest: several cat collars, all of them empty. Greg laughs and now it’s his turn.

Underground drilling happens to be Greg’s line of work. One day his neighbor discovered a hole on his property, and fearing it might be compromising his septic system, he asked Greg to check it out. Inspection showed the hole to be at least fifteen feet long. Greg shined a flashlight into the opening and noticed something glittering deep in the hole. He found a long pole, pounded a couple of nails into the tip, bent them into hooks, and ran the pole toward the glittering object and began to probe. “You know what I snagged? A cat collar!” Further probes yielded more collars. “By the time I finished, I hauled forty-two out of the hole,” Greg exclaims. “The hole was a coyote den and apparently Ma Coyote fed her pups well. Some collars even had names and contact information on them.” “Did you call any of the numbers, bring some welcome closure to the owners?” I joke. “No,” Greg shakes his head, “not a single one.”

Just then I hear the whirr of wings overhead. “Incoming,” Greg says. I look up to see two pair of ducks beginning their descent to the waters of the slough. “I saw a pair of hooded mergansers earlier,” Greg informs me. “And a half dozen pair of wood ducks.”Ah, wood ducks…it’s my turn again.

“There’s something in the chimney,” is the greeting I hear as soon as I walk in the door. Now after a hard day’s work herding sophomores, that’s a greeting you don’t want to hear. Unless it’s Christmas, a home invasion via the chimney is most unwelcome. But what’s most disconcerting is the implication of: “There’s something in the chimney.” Buried deeply somewhere in the fine print of the marriage contract is this language: “If something moves into the chimney of the house, it is the sole jurisdiction and the responsibility of the male of the household to remove said “something.” (Always read the fine print; how many times have you heard that!) My immediate response, being the male of the household, was to sidestep the news with: “Why do you think that?” The following dialogue ensued:

“Because I heard something moving around in the chimney flue, that’s why.” “Are you sure…?” “Yes, I’m sure.” “What did it sound like?” “Oh, it was a kind of fluttering sound.” “Was it a big fluttering sound or a faint fluttering sound?” “It was just a fluttering sound like I told you; there’s something in the chimney.” “I don’t hear anything now; maybe it was the wind.” “There is something in the chimney, I tell you.” “I don’t hear a thing now.” “Well, I know there’s something in there….” “Then it has to be some sort of bird…and if it flew in there, it’ll most likely fly back out, won’t it?” And with that totally unacceptable reassurance, the wife headed for town on some errand or two, leaving me at home…alone…with “something” in the chimney, “something” that made a fluttering sound.

While she was gone, I made the house as quiet as possible; in the chance the chimney should flutter again, I wanted to hear it. For an hour all I heard was the splatter of raindrops on the skylights. Then the chimney broke its silence. A shuffling sound or a scuffling sound. No denying it now. “There’s something in the chimney,” I thought, and as per the fine print I rushed to investigate. I stuck my head in the fireplace and peered up the flue. Above the firebox where the flue jogs into the chimney was a little ledge to collect ash or divert airflow, I guess. Pacing back and forth on the ledge were two webbed feet just heavy enough to produce a  muffled, fluttering sound. Ah, ha! There’s a duck in the chimney! It must be two, three hours since my wife first heard it, I think, and I know this duck isn’t going anywhere now without assistance. Even though I once retrieved a wayward starling from the firebox of our woodstove, I knew rescuing a duck from the chimney was out of my league. For a fleeting moment I considered laying a fire and smoking the duck from its brick prison, but I didn’t want to harm it, let alone roast it. Besides, I had no recipe for fireplace-roasted duck and was afraid I might under or overcook it. And besides, aren’t migratory waterfowl to some degree a protected species? It’s times like these one rushes to the Yellow Pages for assistance, but the closest help I could find was listed under “chimney sweeps.” And Pasado Safe Haven only respond to abused animals, which, so far, didn’t apply to the duck. It was then I remembered a birder friend, a bona fide card carrying member of the Audubon Society and dialed her up. “Hey, I’ve got a duck in my chimney,” I tell my friend. “What should I do?”

I hang up and call the Pilchuck Audubon Society’s phone number I’ve been given. I tell the voice on the other end, “I have a duck in my chimney and sure could use some help.” “We’ll send someone out right away,” I’m relieved to hear as I give the address. In an hour and the pouring rain two members show up at our door, two duck rescuers, a man and a woman. After a brief orientation, the fellow rests a tall extension ladder against the chimney. The woman prefers to work from within and fishnet in hand, crawls into the fireplace. The man quickly returns inside; not much he can do from the ladder and the top of the chimney in the spring downpour. Soon the soot is flying and the woman is frustrated; the duck evades every swipe of her net. She tries again and again, but the duck will not be rescued. After nearly an hour of fireplace squatting, the lady’s partner suggests he give it a try. His be-sooted partner gladly relinquishes the net and in five minutes he emerges triumphant from the flue with a frightened and very dirty wood duck hen in the belly of the net.We all cheer. The little duck, while frightened, appears unharmed. She’s a nice little duck, with a flat little bill and little sooty webbed feet, and soft brown eyes. She’s a Cinderella of a duck, in fact, and my wife names her “Ashley” accordingly. While Ashley has her video op, we learn something about her. “It’s nesting time for wood ducks,” the Audubon pair tell us. “They’re looking for a hollow tree they can safely nest in. With the dwindling habitat, hollow trees are a scarcity and fireplace chimneys are a last resort.” We told them about the pond across the road and they thought that would be a good release site for Ashley. I remember we wrote them a check in thanks, a donation to their chapter of the Audubon Society, for rescuing little Ashley and bringing peace and quiet to our hearth. We ushered Ashley and her rescuers to the door, pointed in the direction of the pond, and thanked all three again for the evening’s entertainment.

Early the next day I leaned a ladder against the chimney, climbed up and placed a sheet of plywood over the chimney pot and weighted it with a brick. That fall we bought a pellet stove insert, precluding any further wood duck inclination to explore the chimney as a potential nesting site.

Greg chuckles, enjoying the story, but before he can retaliate with another of his own--thus prompting me to up the ante with my tale of the colony of bats we had living behind the chimney flashing, I thank him for his time and tell him I’ll let him get on with his day. And thus the bird stories endeth.

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