Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Half Dome In Humboldt

In January, I posted about the Great Gray Owl in Humboldt County. I wanted to go north for this bird, but had severe anxiety about reliving the Brambring experience. But the owl continued to be seen at Elk Prairie, so (no surprise) I made my way up north after obsessively checking the listserv and eBird on a neurotically frequent basis. Of course, I was not surprised when the inevitable happened...the day I arrived in Arcata, the bird had gone missing. After being reported every day for weeks on end, the bird was dipped on by everybody.

The next morning I braced myself for the worst and gathered up the Cassowary from his Bayside abode and headed north. I warned him in advance that if he went with me, we would be glued to the prairie for the entire day if that's how long it took to see or, as I thought, thoroughly dip on the bird. We arrived at the parking lot next to the bird's preferred spot, and waited. And waited. And waited. We wandered around a bit, but there was not much to see in terms of birdlife. Eventually, the gang of photographers camped in the parking lot disappeared, and we had the place to ourselves. There was much of friends, nudibranchs, Star Wars, Mexico, etc. Finally I decided we needed a break from the depressing monotony and headed up the freeway to check some of the owl's alternate spots (without success), and then down to Orick for breakfast at the Palm Cafe, which is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. And if you think I'm crazy for saying are missing out on many of the good things in life.

After late breakfast, we lurked back to the prairie to continue our wait. People came and went. Not one, but two birders I knew separately found me and brought up the fucking Brambring, which was fitting considering The Brambring Incident had happened almost exactly a year before and we were currently in the process of dipping on the Great Gray a la of them had even seen me in my suffering on that awful weakend, slumped over on a curb of that goddamn cul de sac.

They too came and went. It was getting later in the day...finally some elk came over, which provided something to look at.

Elk train.

Sparring elk.

Elk clash.

Covert elk.

After I couldn't take the elk madness for any longer, I wandered down the road toward the other side of the prairie. All the birders and photogs were clustered next to the elk, and the area was not being covered very well. Cassowary broke off and joined me, eager to escape the elk-mad geri masses. Further down the road ahead, we saw a vehicle stopped. I had noticed that these people had two white poodly things with them earlier, but I figured that even poodly people could spot a massive owl, and there were no elk nearby who would give them a reason to stop. We walked down toward where their SUV was stopped and predictably saw nothing (they probably had to stop to pamper their dogs), so I scoped the signs and benches across the prairie in case the owl had decided to come out and perch in some ridiculously obvious place.

And there it was. I couldn't believe it...I had thought we were doomed the entire day, but there it was, sitting next to the park road, unconcerned while cars passed by a few feet away. I was floored, rendered slack-jawed. Talk about a quality lifer. However, it was all about to get better.

After moving into a more reasonable viewing distance, the bird disappeared into the woods after choking down a vole. As we walked by where the bird was last seen, the Cassowary uttered a low, booming vocalization. I turned around to see the owl toward me. A few seconds after this photo was taken, it banked sharply toward me and glided was going to try to land on me. Jesus. However, it did realize I was alive and not a good perch, so it quickly pulled up and landed in the tree next to me instead.

What a crippling bird. Few birds have ever brought the level of stoke that this bird did.

After it left the alder, it promptly flew right into the center of the group of birders behind me. I couldn't believe it. The photog in the photo is actually not aiming the lens at the owl, he was too afraid to move when it landed right next to him.

Incredibly, the owl actually to chose to perch in the center of this ring of nerds. My god, what a confiding bird.

The bird continued to hang out with us at intensely close range, perching on signs and foraging nearby in the meadow. It was brilliant. We saw it catch several voles that evening. Thankfully, the prairie must have been packed with prey and the owl was a good hunter, or else it would not have lingered there for so long.

Viewed in profile, the bird's head bore a remarkable resemblance to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. It was uncanny.

See? I'm not even sure if this is Half Dome, this might be a Great Gray Owl.

We stayed with the bird until it was dark, and cameras were rendered useless. This is one of the best birds I've ever seen, hands's immensity in size and the majesty the bird was oozing was not possible to overcome, and it's confiding ways were absolutely ridiculous. It gave us punishing looks, I really couldn't have asked for more after waiting for it the entire day. We left the bird sitting on top of the entry kiosk to the park, a fittingly absurd way to end the day. Great Success!


  1. Amazing experience! Glad to hear you were able to connect with this creature! I got goose bumps recalling some amazing times I've had with this species. Sometimes epic things do come to those who wait. :)

  2. Congrats on not only a quality lifer but also an incredible experience with that bird! Whether it's the 1st or the nth, GGOWs never fail to bring the wow factor. Every time I see one I feel like I'm lifering all over again.

    Be careful, Great Grays can get into your head--if you start to feel withdrawals in the coming years, come visit us in the frozen north to get a fix.

  3. Shit. Fuck. What?
    How dare...Everything. Nothing.

    Too much.

  4. just verifying: you are, indeed, crazy about the Palm. It IS a real slice-of-life however. I personally mourn the loss of Rolf's. That was a lifer breakfast.