PAT NEAL: Birdwatching with a chainsaw

BIRD WATCHING IS my life. Most of my best bird watching has been done with a chainsaw.

This is considered unethical in some circles, but these are the same people who say it is wrong to bird watch with a shotgun.

Critics can say what they want, but do they have a Cinnamon teal on their life list?

I do, with stuffing and gravy.

A life list is a permanent record of the species you have observed. It is a measure of your achievements as a bird watcher. You don’t have to say how you saw the bird; you just have to see them.

Whoever dies with the biggest life list wins. And if you have to play a little rough and knock down a few trees to tag some serious life-list numbers, toughen up.

Bird watching is not a sport for your more sensitive types.

The fact is, you often can’t see the birds for the trees. Cutting the trees down can get the birds moving and afford some excellent bird-watching possibilities. That’s how I checked off a Northern shrike, a Clark’s nutcracker and a flying squirrel in one day!

I know what you are thinking. A squirrel is not a bird, but they might as well be. Flying squirrels are nocturnal which makes them difficult to observe until you cut their tree down.

Flying squirrels are relatively easy to distinguish from other squirrels; they fly. The other squirrels do not.

Springtime might be the best time of year to be a bird watcher.

How would I know? I usually do all my bird watching down the barrel of a shotgun.

Now that hunting season is long over, it’s nice to take a break and watch birds without shooting them. That way you don’t have to clean them, or cook up a batch of shot-riddled offal that’s tougher than your grandma’s army boot.

Who would have guessed that watching birds was every bit as challenging and difficult as shooting them?

Competition bird watching is one of the toughest sports you can do without wearing a helmet. Careers and reputations are won and lost on chance sightings that may or may not be real.

I’m not saying I’d fake a sighting just to write a column, but that is the way some sick and twisted minds think. All of my sightings have been verified by witnesses every bit as reliable as I am, so there.

The misery of migration brings many rare and colorful species of chicken hawks and fish ducks to the Olympic Peninsula.

Some of these birds fly in precise vees, blade straight and arrow true north, to remote nesting grounds in the Arctic. Others are just lost.

For whatever reason, all the lost birds seem to end up at my house.

Just my luck, I retired to a wilderness swamp for some peace and quiet. I thought it would help me write well.

Nobody said anything about the birds. Or how much noise they make — especially if you feed them.

Sometimes you don’t even have to feed the birds and they’ll show up.

There was the buzzard I saw perched on a snag one rainy morning. Buzzards are pathetic birds to watch, but it’s the fame and glory in seeing the first one of the season that forces us in the competition bird-watching industry to do it.

This poor buzzard was sitting out in a rainstorm looking like he’d just been soaked by a garden hose. Apparently there was no rain where this buzzard came from. He held his wings out like he was trying to dry his feathers in the downpour. There is nothing in any bird watcher’s handbook to prepare you for a sight like that. No reputable bird book recommends shooting the birds to put them out of their misery either, but one look at that poor buzzard would tell you there’s a first time for everything.

I’m not saying that bird watching is cruelty to animals, but if you enjoy watching the suffering of fellow creatures on this planet, one need look no further than the ridiculous migratory attempts of the sandhill crane.

With a call that sounds like a Canada goose trying to gargle a beer, ragged flocks of these intellectually-challenged birds make their way up the Pacific Coast flyway every spring. The sandhill crane migrates many thousands of miles from Baja, Calif., to the Arctic.

It is one of the dirty little secrets of bird watching that because the majestic sandhill cranes spend so much time and energy flying around in circles, they actually migrate many thousands of miles farther than they have to.

And just when you think you’ll get dizzy watching the cranes fly in circles, one of them will strike out and try flying in a straight line. The rest of the cranes invariably follow for another mile or so, until they get confused and start the whole rigmarole again.

I’m not sure if it’s migration, or just a case of being lost long enough to end up someplace else, but the sandhill cranes are gone now and I, for one, am not sorry.

This clears the deck for the best bird watching of the year.

The peregrine falcons are passing through now. The peregrine is supposed to be the fastest bird there is. You’d think any bird that flies over 100 miles an hour wouldn’t have any trouble migrating, but they do.

Falcons attain their maximum speed while diving in for the kill. The rest of the time they have to flap their wings like anyone else.

The birds have to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca to continue north. They need an east wind to help them do that.

Until then, you have a chance to watch the falcons hunt. They’re called “duck hawks,” but falcons kill more robins and shorebirds than anything else.

Keep your eyes open. Whoever dies seeing the most birds wins.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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