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Birds of a feather

It started innocently enough -- a kayak in the Elkhorn Slough. Little

did we (Emma-Cherril and Catharine) know that that this simple dip

into a wildlife refuge would lead to an all-encompassing search, a

few hundred miles of diversion, and hours and hours of laughter.

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Piles of soft, cuddly stuffed birds -- squeaky toys, really --

crafted by the Audubon Society filled the rack of the Elkhorn Refuge

Visitor Center. Each bird is a close representation of the actual

species, rendered in poly-fuzz with the bird’s vocalization recorded

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on an internal device that can be activated by a soft squeeze.

We, of course, had to try all of them, until with great difficulty

we decided on a robin for Emma and a red-tailed hawk for Catharine.

These were quickly attached to our respective backpacks, and we

headed north.

By the time we reached Port Townsend, Wash., we were more than

ready for a break from the road. “The Constant Gardener” was playing

at the Rose Theater, and we were happy for the diversion.

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Before the show, Emma and I engaged in our recently developed

pastime -- bird talk. That simply meant that her squeaky-toy robin

would call out, while my squeaky-toy red-tail would respond. The

wrinkle here is that a woman five rows back began to laugh and told

us that she too has one of the Audubon birds.

That led to a woman in front of us admitting the same. Suddenly,

the birds were talking, a woman had developed a “squeak” in her

husband’s neck (i.e., she’d squeeze and he’d squawk) and none of us

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could stop laughing. We queried the five-row back woman for possible

locations to obtain additional birds and marked down potential

addresses for our morning walk.

Before the film, one of the theater’s staff gave a brief

introduction to both the film and upcoming titles. He remarked that

due to popular demand, “March of the Penguins” would be returning for

a 12- week stay. He was, of course, just kidding.

There were birds in Port Townsend -- just none that we could take

home. The general store had two that were broken. The toy store had

birds -- but not squeakies. It was a dry day in birdland -- although

a walk along Fort Warden’s shoreline gifted us a kingfisher, two

herons, an egret and an otter (OK, an otter isn’t a bird, but he was

such a sweet sight).

We headed for Sequim to hike the rainforests and ponder the bay.

Black oystercatchers chattered incessantly, a kingfisher screeched

and fluttered from masthead to tree, and a flock of Canadian geese

honked overhead, then landed in the nearby pond. A harbor seal (OK,

again, not a bird) fished in the shallows near the cottage we had

rented and surprised our early evening meditation when he surfaced

with a salmon clenched in his teeth.

The bird search continued with great success at the Dungeness

River Wild Bird Center. Gifts for Emma’s grandson filled a small

shopping bag. On the Dungeness Spit we saw black brants -- one of the

refuge’s most important inhabitants. The brant is a true sea goose,

able to drink saltwater and eat saltwater plants. It depends on

eelgrass for its survival. Approximately 1,500 brant spend the winter

in the area, but during the spring migration, as many as 8,000 can be

seen on the tidal flats to the east and west of Graveyard spit.

Two-hundred-plus geese on the bay the next morning, and we were

headed south -- not down the coast, but toward the pull of the

Pacific flyway -- the migratory path that leads through Klamath

National Wildlife Refuge.

Our hunch was right about an early migration due to all the odd

weather.

We put our kayaks into the refuge waters and found ourselves

surrounded by ducks, dragonflies and damsel flies. Autumn breezes,

heated by the vast volcanic valley, sent spent seedpods skittering

across the surface of the water. Redwing blackbirds raced and

chattered. A bald eagle winged across the ponds, his majesty as

awe-inspiring as promised. Northern harriers, red-tails, gyrfalcons,

willets, long-billed curlews, godwits, pintails, mallards, white

pelicans, common and red-breasted mergansers, roadrunners, grouse,

pheasant -- and yes -- Canadian geese completed the scene.

We briefly stopped at the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Visitor

Center to gather additional information, and there they were -- the

Audubon birds! This time, no rationing. A tiny quail for Catharine. A

bald eagle for Emma. A bit more squeaky added to the packs. A bit of

silly fun to ease our transition toward home.

* Catharine Cooper loves wild places. She can be reached at

ccooper@cooperdesign.net


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