The Snowy Owl of Salmonier

In 1973, a group of forward thinking people began to build this boardwalk through the Newfoundland forest. 20140901-DSCN2643

By 1978 the boardwalk snaked through almost 100 acres of spruce and firs, flirting with the Salmonier River and its surrounding wetlands at every turn. This was the year that Salmonier Nature Park was opened to the public. The original developers imagined a nature walk, a true Newfoundland experience, that showcased native species in a manner that mimicked organic life. It was to be the opposite of a zoo. Simple fences that were but a blink away from moose, foxes, eagles, and martens, among other creatures.

In the summer, the humid woods are an amphitheater for the thumping mating calls of frogs and the laughing of Canada Geese. Run-off from the snow rakes itself through the blueberry bushes and into fens lush with cattails. The change of season from summer to autumn is marked by a color metamorphosis of the fox pelage and by a fine sheet of frost coating the boardwalk in the early hours of the day. This is my favorite time to visit.

One of the primary goals of the park was to minimize the isolation between people, especially youth, and nature. I have watched my students, many of them born on the island, marvel at the woods that they came from and all the life that the trees keep concealed.

For me, the first part of the walk is the truest to my perception of the island. Through a gate into a scarcely enclosed space, the boardwalk winds across a thinly wooded section of grass. This is the home of the park's well-fed Snowy Owl. Part of the intrigue of seeing a Snowy Owl is that you always remember just what you were thinking when you spotted it. It is a startling symbol of a moment that belongs to you.

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I saw my first Snowy Owl perched in an Aspen tree growing from the bank of the North Fork of the Gunnison River in Colorado. It was a fledgling owl covered in brand new feathers and it was motionless. I recall the steam rising from slowly churning water and the jagged edges of ice jutting a foot out from the shoreline. I remember thinking that the bird looked like it didn't belong and then reconsidering and deciding that maybe I didn't. It was 5:30 in the morning and I was with my father. I can imagine the sting of the cold in my gloves from slipping with a duck decoy and dipping my hand into the river.

The owl gives the park somewhere to land in people's memories. It provides a connection between the rock and the folks that have lived here for generations. Now 40,000 people visit per year from many parts of the world to experience this and keep a Newfoundland moment for themselves. The full-figured female Snowy Owl at Salmonier Nature Park is among my most highly recommended Newfoundland birds. More than anything though, I recommend walking straight into the nearest woods and finding something hidden in the trees.

Quick and birdie (heh)

I just received an email saying that it has been 9 months since I last posted. For shame. I have been writing my Master's thesis in the interim and it has successfully consumed all of my time and infused a steady stream of guilt for doing things that are not thesis-related. I have 10 blog posts queued. Some of them are long and some are very short. Today's will be short with only a couple of photos. Though the summer is late here in Newfoundland, the familiar pull to get into the woods with my binoculars is ever-present and I do manage to sneak away here and there. In the fall I picture myself skipping through grassy meadows and dense Balsam Fir woods taking photos of birds willy-nilly and fervently hammering away at my keyboard to show you what I found. Until then check out this Greater Yellowlegs I spotted surveying a ditch in Bonavista, NL last September. He walked around inspecting the bellies of rocks for some time and then took a nap midstream.

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Stay tuned for more short posts!

Bald Eagle: Dream Destroyer

I hate to break it to you friends, but that white-headed, dark bodied wing-ed warrior that you vow your patriotism to is not at all what you think she (or he) is. I've given the obsession over Bald Eagles much thought. I have seen them romanticized, the things of paintings and bronze sculptures. I have seen people tear up at rodeos as the image of an eagle is projected, soaring, on to the dirt of the arena. I saw a woman completely lose her cool as a child slowly bent to pick up an eagle feather on the grass. **First of all, let's make something clear. It IS illegal to keep feathers or other parts of Bald Eagles unless you are from a recognized Native American tribe as stated by the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But this is ME telling YOU to pick up the eagle feather and examine it. Do it. I am not denouncing the fact that the bird is a 14-pound killing machine on wings with talons long enough to puncture your vital organs. I am simply trying to shed light on his or her true nature.**

Bald Eagles rarely maintain the stark white head that is contrasted by a crisp and minute line into their dark brown bodies. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that they don't have the white head/dark body until they are, at the earliest, about 5 years old. There are many stages of juvenile plumage in these birds and all of them consist of some brown feathers on the head. Secondly, Bald Eagles are ruthless scavengers. If ever the term "beat a dead horse" were to manifest into life, it would come in the form of a Bald Eagle ripping the insides out of a weeks-old carcass with as much aggression and fervor as you can imagine. For every one of these beasts catching a fish out of a picturesque lake in mid-flight, there are an army of them eating roadkill.

So why do I bring this up at all? Why do I muddle that satisfying sigh you let out as you pass by your eagle mural above the hearth? Surprisingly enough, it's because I think the eagle a perfect metaphor for human liberty. In our most raw and unaltered form, we are powerful. Not because of the conquering olympic creatures we think ourselves to be but because we adapt. We live almost everywhere. We take shortcuts. We survive.

Protection Island was infested with Bald Eagles. I saw them every single day, waiting above auklet burrows for an adult to leave or a chick to wander too close to the edge. There were cameras set up all over the Rhinoceros Auklet colonies monitoring the damage that Black-tailed Deer were causing. As they graze, the deer often step through the roofs of the burrows and crush eggs or chicks. But over time I became convinced that the Bald Eagles were killing far more auklets than the deer were. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of a pristine eagle and snap a few photos. Most times though, the white heads of the adult eagles were stained red with blood and the ground beneath them, a pile of carnage which I have heard called "feather bursts."

When I started seeing the eagles, I was excited and couldn't believe such a congregation of them existed on one tiny island. But as my field season progressed, I grew used to them. Protection Island is the only place in the world that I know of where people come to refer to eagles as pests. Innumerable nuisances dropped to the level of pigeons or fire ants. And really, they are just another bird. Almost all species of birds have a few places where they are the most abundant.

Now if that isn't a luke-warm homage to the national bird of the United States, I don't know what is. Only remember that my intention is not treason, it is simply truth. Now look at these eagles and think about your scope for beauty. No matter how "ugly" we may think the scavenger is, she is successful at staying alive and that, my friends, is beautiful.

These are my photos so please be kind.

This eagle is ~2 years old:

Here's a ~3-year old:

And a ~4-year old:

These Bald Eagles are waiting for an auklet snack from the burrows beneath them:

Had enough yet?

'Murica.