PAT NEAL: Smells like spring fever

THERE MAY BE nothing more beautiful than pussywillows in the snow. Unless it’s the white blossoms of the Indian plum above the pale, yellow flower of the first skunk cabbage poking its elegant head above the pond scum.

This is the season of firsts — the first mosquito, the first daffodil and, the most important first of all to us birdwatchers, the first buzzard.

These first sightings of the season are a subject of intense competition among those of us who take our birdwatching too seriously.

Welcome to the seamy underbelly of the sinister nether world of competition birdwatching.

Unlike normal birdwatching, a sedate pastime engaged by responsible individuals who appreciate the wonders of nature and take simple joy in viewing our feathered friends in their pristine environment, competition birdwatching is an over-the-top, free-for-all where you have no friends and there is no second chance.

You need a sharp eye and a thick hide for competition birdwatching.

Accuracy counts more than speed.

Just when you think you’ve identified a solitary sandpiper, along comes another one and another one, until you realize those aren’t sandpipers at all but dowitchers.

All that really matters in competition birdwatching is who sees the first, the most or rarest of anything. How you do that is your own business. There’s no better way to lose a friend or gain an enemy than to challenge the wrong person to a friendly birdwatching contest.

Like the time I spotted the eared grebe. You may think that grebes are just worthless fish-ducks that are homely as a mud fence and dumber than a sack of rocks. Grebes in general are so stupid they have been known to land on wet pavement mistaking it for water, then find themselves unable to takeoff because their legs are too far back on their bodies for anything but a water takeoff. Maybe that’s what makes them rare.

What do I care? I saw one.

Then, there was the greatest birdwatching first of the season. It began with a hollow thumping sound, like the beating of a savage drum from deep in the primeval forest.

The speed, volume and intensity of the drumming increased to the point where it sounded like someone trying to jumpstart a helicopter.

It was the drumming of the ruffed grouse, standing on a log, beating its wings to attract a mate — sending a message that winter might not be over, but spring is just around the corner.

Just now the ruffed grouse have begun their tiresome drumming ritual where they sit on a log and flap their wings to produce an annoying thumping noise that does not stop for weeks.

It gets worse. The male blue grouse are scheduled to begin their bizarre mating rituals any time now.

The male blue grouse is a mentally challenged bird about the size of a bantam chicken. They are called hooters because they produce a hooting call to attract a mate.

Once the blue grouse start hooting, they keep it up for months from dawn till dark.

Blue grouse produce this haunting yet bothersome call with a pair of inflatable air sacs on either side of their gizzard.

This mating call is sometimes accompanied by a dance, where the posturing males fan out their tail feathers, arch their wings and strut around in drunken circles.

Judging from the abundance of grouse chicks in the summer, this ridiculous display seems to work.

The only thing more pathetic than the mating rituals of the grouse is the fact that I’m watching them. It’s yet another example how competition birdwatching ruined my life.


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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