Archive for April, 2016

The Ospreys of Paradise

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 29, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

The first osprey I ever really noticed was just off a little muddy lake in the middle of south central Wyoming’s Red Desert some decades ago. It was mid-summer and I was wandering the desert trying to convince some very nice antelope bucks that I wasn’t really out there scouting them for a fall hunt with my shiny newly-drawn permit. As I looked up from the water, I noticed two young, downy white birds in a stickpile on top of a rusty old drilling platform. They were already bigger than most hawks, and the bird that flew over seemed as big as an eagle. It didn’t look like any eagle I knew. I watched it land at the platform of sticks, pull strips from the fish it held, and feed the oversize fuzz-balls. Ospreys have fascinated me ever since.

Homeys still talk about the “Fio Rito Show!” a decade or so back. During one of those June Free Fishing Weekends, blue herons, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, cormorants and hawks were in and around us the whole time. The star of that show, though, was an osprey (most likely a male, since they do most of the hunting during the nesting season).

We watched him patiently circle the lake and sweep the creek to the east, looking for fishy food. We figured he had a mate on an egg clutch nearby or was getting food for new hatchlings. At any rate, each time he snatched a trout from the water, a couple dozen people came to attention.

Ospreys are often called “fish hawks” (that primary fish diet), but they are really small eagles with big wingspans. Sometimes they’re mistaken for bald eagles, because of the white plumage on their heads. Most anytime, their unique behavior make them thrilling to watch.

You may have watched ospreys hover 50 to 100 feet above the water and then dive headlong – maybe even clear under the water – after a meal. Their eyes have a special protective covering for such dives and it helps them to see prey under the surface. There’s enough oil on their feathers to dive in, grab a fish, bob back to the surface and take off…but not enough to float or swim. The osprey is the only raptor whose front talons turn backwards, something it probably developed to aid it in catching fish.

As mentioned above, the male does most of the hunting. And hunt he must: he feeds his mate from the time they set up housekeeping. Once they have a brood (two to four), he may have to provide six pounds of fish a day. Fledglings grow fast. They will be flying and hunting by mid-August. By late September they will all head to Chile or Argentina, where most of ours winter over. The young birds may remain there up to 18 months before starting annual trips north.

As always, in keeping with the wishes of the Science Education Committee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, I include the following. Osprey’s scientific name is Pandion haliaetus Linnaeus. It is mostly dark above and white underneath, with black “wrist” patches. The osprey is easily identified in flight by the angular shape of those wrists in the wings. Look for the slow deep wing beats of arched wings spanning up to nearly six feet. As with most all raptors, the female will be larger than the male, weighing something less than four pounds. The osprey prefers open waterways, lakes and shore areas, where it finds the fish and crustaceans on which it makes its living. Of course, it will eat a rodent or bird, too, given the chance.

You may see ospreys – or their mostly manmade nest platforms – near water most anywhere in the state, but some of the easiest to observe are along the Yakima River through most of the county. Every time you watch one hunting or on its nest, it will be a brand new experience. Find a safe place to pull over, get out the binocs, and let yourself be entertained for a while.

Our ospreys are in good numbers. The most common danger they face is entanglement with fishing line and bailing twine from diving or gathered as nest material. On average, it seems, a fledgling or two are lost every couple years.

Ask Deborah Essman – Bird Whisperer of Paradise – about these wonderful birds and she’ll likely tell you about their “velcro feet,” the tiny barbs, or spicules, which enable them to grip the slimiest of slimy fish. Then, if you are lucky, she’ll pass along the same observation about ospreys that famed wildlife photographer Leonard Lee Rue III made about wild turkeys; they are largely right-footed.  She may even close her eyes and watch – in her mind’s eye – an osprey dive feet first while leaning forward, then describe to you the sense of wonder she experiences seeing a large beautiful raptor fearlessly hit the water and emerge with a fish.

Go to that amazing YouTube video or anywhere online. See ospreys dive for fish, shake themselves like dog after coming out of the water while carrying a fish heavier than themselves. Check out Watch ospreys doing what they were born (hatched?) to do.

Happy osprey season.

All about Spring – and Making More

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 22, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

You gotta love spring. It was slow in arriving this year, but the signs are now all about us. This is, after all, the time when the fancy of a young man (or insect or bird or bee for that matter) turns to thoughts of making more.

I see birds and insects pairing up and I think of Edward Last-of-the-Hucklings, as a three-year-old. How delighted he would be watching “biwds wessling onda groun.” His mom or I might say “Oh, they are just making more birds.” How he would laugh.

Now, I wander across campus and watch birds, bugs, a couple squirrels or students strutting their stuff for each other. Everywhere is a frenetic desire to make more, and I have to smile.

Research has shown that most reproductive decisions are made by the females of species – as it should be. There is more to that story, and I got in a little trouble writing about it, once.

In the late 1980s, a few months into the Colorado version of this column, I stumbled into a conversation about geese and their mating habits, as compared to men in general, and her man in particular. The angry woman with whom I was suddenly conversing punctuated her conclusion with “Well, at least geese mate for life and know how to be faithful… Put THAT in your male chauvinist pig attitude and smoke it!”

What could I do? It took very little research to discover what waterfowl specialists had found. In any given clutch of four to ten eggs on arctic breeding grounds, there was DNA of at least two ganders – and as many as four. Geese may mate for life, but they fool around.

Mallard duck studies indicate the hens are, also, actively committed to the diverse future of their species. Deer, too: old buddy Bob Hernbrode of the Colorado Division of Wildlife handed me a memo from the research center in Fort Collins noting that a fair percentage of twin deer fawns had two different daddies.

I was duty-bound, of course, to pass on these findings of philandering geese, ducks and deer to my readers. Responses contained suggestions of biased research, and more than one observation about my shortcomings as a writer and male of the species.

Then came that January, 1999, issue of Scientific American. Attached to an article about DNA microsatellites was a sidebar titled “Searching for Papa Chimp.” The three researchers used DNA tracers to probe the mating habits of a group of wild chimps in West Africa. Of 13 offspring, it was shown that seven could not have been fathered by any of the males in the group.  Apparently, “at least some of the female chimpanzees must have sneaked into the surrounding forest for trysts with males in other groups. Such adventures might explain how even small groups of chimpanzees maintain a great deal of genetic diversity.”

I love watching the serious-yet-joyful jostling involved in determining whose genes will lead a species into the next generation.

A few years back, I walked out of The Evergreen State College library into a cool brisk sunlit spring day. I was grabbed by drumming from a small grassy edge of Red Square, just beyond one of the construction fences. A young man with a half-dozen hand drums of various types and sizes was deeply into a meditation of rhythm and beat and transcending melody. I leaned on the fence and opened my ears.

In a semi-circle around him were seven or eight young women and one man. At some point, two guys walked up next to me. “That’s all he’s got going for him, man, those drums…” the guy next to me said. Then one of the women walked over, sat down and picked up a drum. As she gently began thumping the drum, eyes closed and swaying with the beat and the drummer, the other guy said, “Well, apparently they’re enough.”

If you have been walking along the river, you’ve been stirred or startled by the noisy early spring pairings of Branta canadensisour Canada goose. Over the years, I have watched and heard these springtime rituals in Kansas, on the Colorado plains and over mountain lakes high in the Rockies. It is among the most urgent sounds in nature. This spring, their paired-off trips along the river and to and from nearby ponds have been loud and boisterous. One seems always chasing the other, and that piercing “car-uunk, car-uunk, cur-wahnk” is heart-wrenching. I think I have never heard anything more pitiful than the pleadings of a love-struck Canada goose.

Soon, the little California quail boys will be staking out turf on all sides of us. From dawn ‘til dusk, we will hear that passionate “chi-CAH-go, chi-CAH-go.” As the girl quails agree to set up housekeeping in their territories, the boys will use a similar call to warn off intruders.

We humans, and our rituals, are not that unique among the species pairing up around us. As I walk across campus, I watch the strutting and bowing and moves of young men attempting to capture the world on which young women are sitting. Our species will carry forward.

Ah, spring…

Zeb Explains Trash

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 15, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

As I write this, I’m looking ahead to our Durr Road cleanup on Saturday (that would be tomorrow, as you see this). I’m wondering what – and how much – trash we will find out there this year. That wondering sent me back into the draft of “The Zeb Chronicles – Conversations with an Old Mountain Man,” a book I intend to publish three or four years ago.

The book chronicles interactions and conversations Zeb and I had over a couple decades starting in the 1970s. For a variety of past-life reasons which I won’t detail now, Zeb suddenly appeared at moments when I needed to understand something about myself. I was often a poor student. One of our conversations was about trash.

“Stop!  Now…look here,” Zeb said, “your life is not about getting more and more comfortable… It’s about knowing who you really are.”

Zeb had appeared as I stepped out of my truck. Looking back on it, I guess I really WAS sort of raving. I had driven into the hills on a deer and elk scouting trip, and came upon a small clearing along a jeep trail. The problem was the clearing wasn’t very clear – it was wall-to-wall cans, boxes, plastic, and broken glass. Hundreds of empty shells and cartridges littered the forest floor.

“Well, just look!  Look at…and that…and why would…and…” I couldn’t even get a sentence out.  “And what the hell has this got to do with me being comfortable and knowing who I really am, anyhow?”

Zeb put on his patient, almost-smiling, face. He looked at me with his head cocked a little to the left, shrugged almost imperceptibly, and started picking up trash. “Aw c’mon, Zeb, talk to me.”

It probably took us 45 minutes to get the worst of it. The bed of my pickup was about half filled when we took a last sweep through the clearing. We settled onto the trunk of an old downed pine, and Zeb looked real intently into my face. “You calmed down now, boy? You gotta quit getting so riled up over stuff…you won’t live to see our work through. And I will have wasted all my great teachings on you.”

“See?” With a wave of his hand, he was indicating the clearing and the trash in the back of my truck. “This is yours. You created it.”

“No, I don’t see,” I said. “You and I cleaned this mess UP… I didn’t make the mess. Look, Zeb, you get to see what I do – you’ve been around me most everywhere. You know that I pick cans and stuff up in the woods. And when I go shooting, I pick up my brass and shells and targets. Why would you say something like that?” This was at a time when I almost idolized Zeb. Truth was my feelings were hurt.

He smiled and shook his head. “I’m not out to hurt your feelings, boy. I’m wantin’ to open your eyes. The deal is, I help you understand your real relationship with the Earth world – the wildlife an’ plants an’ rocks an’ air an’ such – and you do somethin’ useful with it, once you figure it out. That so?” I nodded, but I still didn’t get how I created that trash in the woods, and Zeb knew it.

“Awright.  Let’s start here: To know your relationship with your mother, the Earth, you gotta know yourself; and to know yourself, you gotta look at every aspect of who you are – every aspect. See, boy, you’re a…what’s that word you used…litterbug – yeah, a litterbug! See, when ya get so mad, like here with all this trash, it might be ’cause you feel guilty about doin’ it yourself, and you’re trying to hide it – you don’t wanna look at a part of you that ain’t perfect.”

“No,” I protested, “it’s NOT the same. Maybe I left a cup or two in the park, or forgot a can or something, but that’s just a couple things…not like this. It’s NOT the same.” Zeb wasn’t buying it.

“Trash is trash,” he said. “And pretending that a little here is not the same as a lot over there is lyin’ to yourself about who you are. The people who left all this junk in this clearing just showed you who you are – an’ you didn’t like it one bit. See, you lie to yourself about how YOU don’t litter, and then you can be more comfortable with yourself.  Truth is, Jimmy, y’re a LITTERBUG! And when you and ever’body else owns that, then there’ll be no need for anybody to be leaving trash around, to remind you of who you really are. And bein’ reminded can be hard to take. See ya.” Zeb left me with a mindful.

Somehow, I’m reminded of this conversation with Zeb most every year we go out to clean up Durr Road. We’ll talk about shooting responsibly and picking up our trash. And we’ll again wonder why on earth people would do what they had done here.

“Life is not about getting more comfortable,” Zeb often said, “it’s about knowing who you really are.” Sometimes it’s still hard to look. Tomorrow is another opportunity.

Join the party. Watch your grandchildren’s eyes light up when you mention collecting trash alongside such icons of Paradise as Gordon “Keep That Road to Wild Places Open Forever” Blossom, Lee “Small Streams are the Answer to All Fishing Blues” Davis, Bill “Dances with Rattlers” and Deborah “Bird Whisperer of Paradise” Essman.

By the way, shooting range rules, locations and designs are about to change along Durr Road. Come to the Tuesday, April 26, discussion at Hal Holmes at 6 p.m. See for yourself how the DFW changes will help keep the whole area cleaner.

First, though, come play tomorrow. 9 a.m. on Durr Road – look for the signs.

Happy Earth Day, 2016…

Of Spring, Wetlands, and Blackbirds

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 8, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

You may have been of the same mind. Frankly, I was having doubts there for a while about whether or not spring would return to the valley. Then we had those teasers of weather, and I was even more uncertain.

Then, last sunny and breezy Tuesday afternoon, I drove by one of the wetlands out near the airport. With a window down, and my rig idling quietly along, I heard it: that gurgling, almost metallic, conk-a-ree, conk-a-ree, of a red-winged blackbird male declaring his turf out in the cattails. At last, the blackbirds had returned spring to Paradise.

Our blackbirds, of course, are the yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds. These are blackbird days, and always worth a few minutes of quiet, windows-down, warm afternoon, quiet time at one or another of the marshes or wetlands around the valley.

With striking flashes of color, they are easy to spot among cattails and bulrushes all over eastern Washington. With a little patience, you can begin to identify their calls and locations within marshes. The males have been here since January or February, and are occasionally mistaken for year-round residents (a few actually may be). They flew in early from as far south as Costa Rica to stake out territories prime enough to attract a handful of females. In the next couple weeks, courtship displays will be in full swing.

You will often see a red-winged male drop its wings, showing off its red and yellow shoulder patches. It will tip forward, spread its tail, and sing. Researchers have compared the colorful shoulder patches to “sergeant’s stripes,” signifying rank and social order. During a number of studies, males with smaller, or dyed, wing patches were routinely run off nesting territories by other males. Red-winged displays, and battles (should it come to that), will occur almost exclusively around the shallow edges of marshes and wetlands.

On the other hand, over deeper water (to four feet), the yellow-headed male will stand with its body thrust upward, showing off its yellow head and upper chest, while also tipping forward, spreading its tail, and singing with its wings half open.

By now, territories have been are pretty well established, and most females are making up their minds about playing house (nest?) with a particular male. Dominant males of both species may have several mates within their territories. The females, mostly brown and drab, will build their nests in the cattails or bulrushes. Nests will be built in emergent vegetation, firmly woven of bulky wet vegetation, and then lined with dried grass. As the nests dry, they will shrink and tighten into place.

Making more blackbirds can be a big challenge. The nests of both blackbirds are common drops for eggs of the parasitizing cowbird, which lets other species rear its young. In addition, nests and eggs of the yellow-headed birds are often destroyed by marsh wrens.

The female red‑winged will lay three or four blue‑green eggs, streaked with purple. The three to five eggs of the yellow-headed female are gray to greenish‑white, marked with brown or gray. Females are totally responsible for the twelve days of incubation. Males will generally sit nearby, singing their loud songs (the red-winged conk-a-ree and the yellow-headed gunk-eeeee) and protecting the nest territory. If time and conditions permit, the red-winged may produce three broods a year, ensuring that they remain the most populous bird in North America. The yellow-headed may produce two sets of fledglings. In late September, our blackbirds, along with starlings, grackles, cowbirds, and Brewer’s blackbirds, will gather in huge undulating flocks (as many as 250,000) for the fall trip to Central America.

The Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association Science Education Committee requires scientific names. Red‑winged  is Agelaius phoeniceus and the yellow-headed is Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. Both species make their livings on insects, spiders, grass and other seeds, along with some fruits. For more info, including research and observation projects, see The Birder’s Handbook, by Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye. Birds of North America, by Robbins, Bruun and Zim, and any good field guide is good reading. Of course, you will find great photos and research online; start with Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab at

Take your ears, eyes, optics and cameras to the cattails and bulrushes.  Immerse yourself.  Be inspired. Feel and hear spring in Paradise.

James Groseclose Memorial Pheasant Hunt -VI

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 1, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

Last Saturday, we celebrated the Sixth Annual James Groseclose Memorial Pheasant Hunt out at the Cooke Canyon Hunt Club.

You recall, no doubt, that our buddy Jim Groseclose (aka J1) suddenly went home just over six years ago – March 21, 2010 – during the Sweet Sixteen. Two weeks before that sad day, Jim Davis (J2) and I (J3) joined J1 on a James Gang Pheasant Adventure on some of the Cooke Canyon Hunt Club ground. We enjoyed an armed walk, through good pheasant cover, on a nearly perfect almost-spring day. His beloved Labs were in top form. Each year, during the Sweet Sixteen, we take an armed walk at Cooke Canyon in his memory.

Groseclose, of course, was founder and leader of the James Gang, with Jim Davis and me being J2 and J3, respectively. It jelled on a crisp November ‘07 morning, somewhere around 7:30, as we were driving up the north face of Manastash on I-82. As licensed HAM radio operators, we regularly checked in to the morning round robin network of HAMs across Kittitas County. That morning Groseclose checked the three of us in from his truck’s mobile radio. After he rattled off our three legal names and call signs, he signed us off, noting that we were heading to the Yakama Rez to chase birds with shotguns. Without hesitation, Gloria Sharp said, “Oh my God. The James Gang is armed and heading out of the valley!” And so it came to be.

Being part of the James Gang, chasing pheasants, ducks, quail and chukars with two great Labs and two true gentlemen added a richness to my life I had been missing since my days with my black Lab Freebe the Wonder Dog.

Freebe and I spent countless stolen hours (a couple at a time) afield during my quest for a Ph.D. in Geography and Meteorology at the University of Kansas decades back. That doctorate was my union card – my ticket – into a much-wanted teaching career in higher education. I was working full time and studying full time, and we paid a pretty price for the education. I won Freebe in a rigged drawing. I first figured I ended up with him just so he could ease our family stress. However, after many armed walks through quail and pheasant cover and hours in a duck blind, I realized he’d been sent by God to help me deal with the stress of full-time work and study and keep me tied to my wife and kids. He came to remind me of earth connections and the joy of being afield. He was the best four-legged human I’ve known, with an unmatched sense of humor.

For a few years, Freebe and I were members of the North Star Game Bird Farm in Colorado – similar in a lot of ways to Cooke Canyon – and we loved being able to spend days afield with pheasants before and after state seasons. In fact, it was on one of those hunts that I first realized that Freebe could chuckle – and was probably smarter than me. But, I digress.

This year, in honor of the pleasure J1 took in inviting good people to join a hunt, Chuck Morelius and Steve Loeb came along. Thus, last Saturday morning, J2 and I, our photographer (Honorary James Gang member Gloria Sharp – How not?), and Homey Bill Boyum and his German shorthair Maisy, assembled with our two guests at Cooke Canyon Hunt Club.

None of us, including Maisy the Magnificent, had been busting cover for some months, so we needed a little warm up wandering. Bill and Maisy quickly found their hunting rhythm, and with the exception of that one hasty and (mostly) unchallenged departure of a rooster, we did our part. There is something magical – sometimes almost breathtaking – about watching a pointer work the cover and the breeze, finding bird after bird as she was born to do.

Just after Noon, following a few final pictures, a round of thanks to Maisy and Bill, and words on behalf of our absent and always-missed James Gang leader, we retired to the Cooke Canyon Clubhouse. Following a Noon repast of Alice’s classic pheasant soup, cleaning of the birds to be shared with family and community, a couple possibly-true stories, and a few so longs, we took our leave.

Freebe would no doubt approve of Doug and Alice Burnett and their Cooke Canyon Hunt Club. Members pay an annual membership. Add in a handful of released birds and it still runs less than what it would cost to find a couple limits somewhere else in the state. Hunters choose a field, make a reservation, bring friends and dog (some are available) and take an armed walk. The Club has activities for military vets and kids, and you can find out more at or 509-933-1372.

The Sixth Annual Jim Groseclose Memorial Pheasant Hunt was a success, in all the ways we had hoped it might be. “Now,” J1 often said after our final hunt of the season, “it’s time to think about salmon fishing.”