I step outside into the early morning after a day of rain showers, and the air is heavy with scent. This spring moisture is the first to fall in weeks, and it has unlocked a complex tapestry of smells. The sweet perfumes of newly emerged forest wildflowers like wild lily of the valley, star-flowered Solomon’s seal, and false Solomon’s seal are set against the thick, loamy aroma of decaying organic matter. I breathe in the world, hold it in my lungs for a moment, and head out for my morning walk.
A rich melody of bird song moves through the air, weaving in and out of the vegetation, and is overlaid upon the olfactory bouquet. Newly arrived migrants add their songs to those of the early migrants and the year round residents. Vireos, warblers, tanagers, flycatchers, and thrushes all vie for acoustic niche space, partitioning the forest levels and the soundwave frequencies among them. I focus on the soundscape around me, working to identify each bird species by its call or song, and also listening for the crack of breaking twigs; I’m not the only big animal out and about in the morning.
It’s now mid-May and the neon-green of fresh chlorophyll-filled leaves, horsetails, and grasses fills the valley. It also fills in the forest understory, making it much harder to see off the trail. The reduced sightlines has me a little on edge; a few days prior I happened upon our local black bear Albert at a much closer distance than he or I wanted. A few woofs and a bluff charge by him, and some negotiating by me settled things down, but it had left me a little uneasy. For the most part, however, Albert (and most of the bears in the valley) are just interested in filling their bellies with the rich array of fresh greens around. Newly sprouted horsetails, skunk-cabbage, and dandelions are favorites, and many of the bears seek out the road in the early spring to forage on the grasses and dandelions along the margins. In an effort to conserve energy, some of the bears will sit, or even lie down on the ground, and graze on whatever is within reach. Our resident black bear, Albert, took this “energy-conservation” to a new level the other morning when he joined us for breakfast. He slowly made his way across the property, and when he got to the patch of grass just outside our cabin, he flopped onto the ground and began munching away below our window. He grazed at that spot for a few minutes, and then, rather than get up and move to a new spot, he crawled on his elbows a few feet and resumed eating. He crawled his way around our little front yard for a while, and then came across one of Tara’s hiking boots lying in the grass. Albert sniffed at the shoe, gently nibbled on the heel portion, decided that it wasn’t to his liking, and kicked the shoe behind him. The entire half-hour that he was here was immensely rewarding to watch at such close quarters, but his palpable disgust at the shoe and subsequent desire to get it away from him is one of my favorite Albert moments to date. It just makes you realize that there are some universal truths—one of which is that nobody likes stinky shoes.
While I could fill an entire post with stories of Albert (and perhaps I will in the future), I want to take us out of the valley today, up Bella Coola’s (in)famous “Hill” and onto the plateau that sets the eastern edge of the valley. From where we are located in the valley, it’s about a 15 minute drive to the bottom of the hill. At that point the road turns to dirt and begins climbing rapidly. The next 20-30 minutes generally consists of steep (sometimes vertical) walls on one side, and sheer drop-offs (with no rail) on the other side. The road is not for the faint of heart, but it’s the only road into (and out of) the valley, so unless you’re taking the ferry, you’ll be navigating this exciting road.
My first foray out of the valley was a few weeks ago when Katie and Dennis took me “up top” to do a bit of snow-shoeing. At that point the valley was still cool, with nighttime temperatures around freezing and daytime temps generally in the 40’s and 50’s F. Up top, at approximately 5,000 ft elevation, the land was still in the icy grip of winter, with 3 feet of snow on the ground in many places. During our ascent we came across small flocks of winter finches in the road—white-winged and red crossbills, pine grosbeaks, and pine siskins flew up as the car approached, then rapidly returned to resume their activities. I wasn’t sure if they were ingesting grit, which helps break down hard seeds, or perhaps minerals like calcium carbonate, but whatever they were after was clearly important to them.
We finally leveled off, and drove for maybe 15 minutes onto the plateau. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the road, and along the edges the snow was piled up a few feet high. We passed stands of charred tree trunks, remnants from some of the wildfires that have scorched the area in recent years. We met up with Joren, a Belgian biker on his way from Canada to Mexico, and got set-up with our skis and snow-shoes. I attempted to hike the snow-covered trail in my boots, but after punching through to my thighs a few too many times, I put on my snow-shoes. The trail passed mostly through newly regenerating forest growing in the shadows of blackened lodgepole pine skeletons. When we had gone a few kilometers, we decided to break, and as the others grabbed a quick bite, I ventured down the trail a little further. Around a bend in the trail I came across the fresh tracks of some ptarmigan. These chicken-like birds are a type of grouse, and they typically live at high elevations, and/or high latitudes. I had no idea if the birds that had made the tracks were still in the area, but I slowly crept off the trail, following some of the four-toed footprints. I looked up and over, and on a small rise I saw a pair of willow ptarmigan frozen in place. These birds are practically impossible to see in a snowy landscape because they molt into an almost pure white plumage during the winter. In the spring they molt into a mottled brown, but the two birds I had spotted were still sporting their winter-wear. I watched the two birds for a while, and soon realized there were others nearby. One of these other birds came up out of a small ravine, saw me, and exploded into the air. That sent all the others into the air as well, and the 10 or so birds flew off into the snowy woods. When the birds had disappeared from view, I turned around and began making my way back. The weather, which until that point had been mostly sunny and almost warm, turned as well. Snow began to fall, and the wind kicked up, agitating the landscape into a blustery snow-globe.
I trudged on down the trail, rounded a corner and 10 meters in front of me stood the flock of ptarmigan, sprinkled along the path. I stopped, and they froze and we eyed each other for a few moments before they took flight again, moving further down the trail and off to one side. The sun had now reemerged, only to disappear a few minutes later behind an even heavier snow squall. I came upon the ptarmigan again, and this time they felt safe in their location off the trail. I took some photos in the deteriorating conditions, and headed on towards the car and the cabin where we were planning to eat lunch.
As I approached the road, a Canada jay was calling angrily, and I looked up to see the unmistakable silhouette of a northern hawk-owl. These owls live in the far north, and unlike most other owls they are active during the day. They get their name from their hawk-like behavior—they hunt for small mammals and birds by perching on top of a tree, and scanning the surrounding area for prey. This bird was on top of a short pine, and then it flew across the road towards me, and landed in the top of a dead tree, about 15 meters up. Some of the nearby Clarke’s nutcrackers, as well as the mountain and black-capped chickadees called out their agitation, but they left the owl in peace. The owl scanned the area, often swiveling its head 180 degrees around to look over its back. He flew off to another dead tree, where he remained until I left to join the others in the cabin.
To be continued.
About the author:
Loren grew up in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts, and honed his natural history skills in the urban backyard. He attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Natural Resources, and received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has traveled extensively, and in the past few years has developed an affliction for wildlife photography.