Into the Wild

From the Naturalist's Notebook


Bald Eagle vs. Common Goldeneye

The goldeneye duck, separated from its compadres, came to the surface to suck in some oxygen. The eagle swooped. The duck frantically dove. The eagle climbed to 10 feet, laboring hard, and waited for the duck to reappear. This drama repeated again and again as I watched. Each time the duck barely escaped.

Eagles aren’t built for hovering. Nor are they skilled hunters of duck, like peregrine falcons. But they’re big, and they can be persistent.

Now — before I tell you the end of the story, put yourself in my naturalist’s shoes (they’re Chuck Taylors, for what it’s worth) and try to guess what I have found most fascinating about this encounter, in hindsight.

It’s a trick question because it actually hasn’t been anything about the birds at all. It’s been about the people I’ve told afterward. Whenever I have shared this story I have paused at this point, with the eagle hovering and the duck needing to surface to breathe. And the reaction has always been the same.

“Did the duck get away?”

Never has it been, “Did the eagle get to eat?”

Peoples’ reactions to nature can be as strange and thought-provoking as nature itself. Who do we root for in nature? Why?

I mean this is the bald eagle, an icon on par with orcas in these parts. Many folks here remember the days when you couldn’t hope to see one anywhere in Washington, when they were fighting extinction. I have family members whose eyes tear up to this day when they see one glide overhead.

Why, then, when an eagle turns to hunting, does our concern shift so suddenly to the duck? That’s an open question. Is it like my friend has opined, that our lifestyles today have tuned us to expect unjust death and destruction in nature but no longer tune us to the basic idea of hunger, or the idea that death and life must go hand in hand? Or is it something else? Send me your theory if you have one.

Oh, and don’t worry — the duck got away.

Ask the KP Nature Guide:
Screams in the Night

Q: We were awakened by an unidentifiable screeching sound in the middle of the night. Our neighbors said it may have been a fox. Could that be the case, and what might cause foxes to make such a loud noise? — Tom and Verna Herron, Rocky Bay

A: In college we had a tradition. Every night during finals week, at the stroke of midnight, everyone who was cramming for a test would open their window or go outside and scream at the top of their lungs. The primal scream, it was called. It felt good.

Wild animals have far better reasons for screaming in the night — and quite a few of them do. Even with a recording it might be hard to say what you heard, but let me give you a list of options. Foxes do indeed have a scream that is bloodcurdling. Often it’s a vixen looking for love, though it can also be a more mundane matter: locating another fox, setting a boundary.

Bobcats emit all sorts of wails, growls and aggressive howls. Though rarely heard, mountain lions have a thunderous roar. Lately I’ve heard raccoons making sharp grunts and staccato screamettes around my place. And of course barn owls, with their snakelike necks, are the most unearthly sounding bird, giving off one-second noise-walls of pure screaming static.

Sound travels well at night. Many of these animals roam widely. By turning up the decibels in a register we might call screaming, they are able to communicate and keep tabs on what’s going on in the dark

An Atmospheric River

What river flows overhead?

No, it’s not some crazy Buddhist koan; it’s a newly described phenomenon called an atmospheric river. Thanks to satellites, we have an ability to measure the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere and how fast it’s moving, which has revealed that in certain conditions, often in winter, water evaporated from tropical oceans can be channeled like the water in a firehose, between zones of atmospheric pressure, all the way from Hawaii or the Philippines to douse the West Coast.

Atmospheric rivers often carry more water than the Amazon. If the water vapor hits our coast and hills, it falls in rainstorms that are concentrated and continuous. I installed a rain gauge on my porch Jan. 9. Three days later an atmospheric river hit — you probably remember it — and in 36 hours I had measured an impressive 5.06” of rain. It was landslide city. I was digging emergency drainage channels through our yard.

In 2019 meteorologists created a scale to categorize atmospheric river storms, much like hurricanes are categorized, from a mild beneficial river (Category 1) to a prolonged and hazardous river (Category 5). On average, we get a Category 4 river every two years. Oregon gets a Category 4 every year and the Bay Area one every three years. In fact, atmospheric rivers give California a third of its average rainfall and snowpack. They are beneficial and necessary — but they can also cause great damage, especially in landslide-prone places like logged or burned areas. As warming over tropical oceans puts more water vapor into the air, atmospheric rivers are likely to increase in intensity.

The January 12-13 storm qualified as a Category 5. Wow! And it packed an extra punch. After it had supersaturated the ground for 36 hours, making the solid footing of trees a lot less solid, a sharp divot of low pressure passed just north of us, stirring up a brief gale with winds topping 50 mph. Trees were thrashed. Power lines snapped like rubber bands. Most of us were plunged into darkness, forcing us to sit by candles where, for a while, we contemplated our lives. Aha — maybe it was a Buddhist phenomenon after all.