December 16, 2005
Boreal Owl
Boreal Owl
What could a wheat farmer, a litigation attorney, and a teaching tennis professional possibly have in common?  Well, they're standing together on a mountaintop in eastern Washington, on a midnight in October, watching a full moon rise over the Canadian border.  One has a tape recorder, one a 2 million candlepower searchbeam, one a camera.  Sounds like a punchline coming, doesn't it?

It occurs to me, as I take a break from doing Christmas cards to write today's column, that a majority of those cards going out of town are going to friends I have made through birding.  I've talked about the fascination and beauty of birds and how birding can become a pathway back to Mother Earth, but let's not forget it can be a conduit to fascinating and beautiful people as well.

For every birder who enjoys being out there all alone in some power spot with just binoculars and field guide, there are several who have found that sharing their avocation with others immeasurably enhances the experience and their lives.  Recall in our opening column we noted birders, like the birds they pursue, come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and political stripes.  Finding common ground with people from disparate backgrounds, belief systems, and world views is commonplace in the birding world.  And is that not the hope and the promise of this holiday season out there in the real world as well?

Contrary to the perception of many non-birders, birding is neither esoteric nor elitist. Most birders really don't care about the timing of feather molt (the process by which birds shed their old feathers and grow new ones) or the technicalities of wing formula (a method of identifying look-alike species by comparing the length of certain wing feathers).  They simply delight in finding new birds, enjoying their color, behavior, and song, and meeting new people with whom to share their passion.

So, what are the three strangers doing on the mountaintop?  We're trying to call up a boreal owl, the hardest of the 19 North American owl species to find.  This is a ten inch, 4.5 ounce nocturnal predator which lives on voles and flying squirrels.  One did come in, silently at first and unseen, in response to our tape recording of its call.  And then it set our collective scalps crawling when it suddenly began caterwauling somewhere on the dark ridgeline behind us.