by Denny Olson
I’ve been lucky enough to sit on a high promontory and watch a group of raven rascals – who always seem to have spare time on their talons – showing off their flight skills. Twice, perhaps the same raven both times, one cackled the raven version of “Hold my beer, watch this!” and proceeded to fly upside down for nearly a quarter of a mile, egged on by the escorting cohorts smack-talking back at the daredevil. I think they are admirable for their constant unpredictability and eternal adolescence.
I also once witnessed, at arm’s length, the reason goshawks were once known as “grouse-hawks”. I was in a tree, for reasons I will explain later, at dusk, and a Ruffed Grouse lifted off right under me and roared its way toward a male aspen tree and the succulent buds that fit so comfortably in a grouse crop that time of year. I caught a peripheral flash of gray to my right and in a loud “whup” and explosion of feathers, the grouse was dead and being lugged away by a male goshawk. It landed close by because of its oversized cargo load and began to pluck away at feathers. Some of the feathers from the initial impact settled onto my boots. It was that close. My startled heart didn’t settle down for a few minutes.
These kinds of experiences turn ordinary birdwatching into stories that may last more than a generation (if I have any say in the matter). It made me into a huge fan of sitting still and being invisible in the woods – something I would love to teach every kid on the planet. There is magic in stillness and quiet. The unifying context of these adventures is that I was not birdwatching at the time. I was hunting. For food. And that was the founding reason that I learned to be still in the natural world.
In a tree stand, I’ve had chickadees, nuthatches and a Sharp-shinned Hawk land on my bow. They probably wondered why that particular “branch” was trembling. Hundreds of birds have landed nearby over the years close enough to ID without binoculars. I have watched two yearling black bears goofing around under me and then one took a nap, tucking it’s head into a short “Y” of branches in a small tree and dozing off. Another time I had to reassuringly talk-down a much larger surprised black bear from a tree it had climbed in a panic as I was still-hunting. It stopped every couple of steps down the tree and huffed a reprimand at me, but I had apologized, so all was well enough for him to quickly amble away when he hit the ground. Bull moose have bellowed at me as I passed by, calming down as I reassured them of my innocent intentions. A female grouse with a late brood attacked my boot to protect her chicks. There have been many other encounters like this, and it may seem counterintuitive to say this, but I owe my passion about birdwatching to my own entry-level activity — called hunting. For me, at this time of year, both pursuits go hand in hand.
For those of you who may be surprised by this, my caveat to you is that I view reasons for hunting on a wide spectrum. That spectrum goes from AR-toting, high-fiving celebration of the death of an animal killed for it’s antler size … to apologetic gratitude for the sustenance given by the prey to the predator. The former is directly related to the self-absorbed insecurities of that hunter, in my opinion. The latter comes from a humble understanding by the hunter of the seriousness of taking a life, in the context that everything that eats, must directly or indirectly kill (even vegetables) to do that. Death is just as important as life in the cycles of our ecosystem. That awareness demands the kind of gratitude I feel when gifted by a new bird story that makes my hair stand on end.
Hunting and birdwatching go together, and I’ve even taught classes on how birdwatching can add richness (and decrease boredom) to a slow day on the hunt. Whether we admit it or not, we are all participants in that complex dance of nature, with its trillions of participants and relationships. However you like to do your participation, just make sure you do it. That sense of belonging to a bigger picture is calming, reassuring and very, very rewarding.