PAT NEAL: So sad to see them go

IT’S SAD TO see an old friend go away. It begs the question, if they’re leaving why should I stay?

It brings the sullen realization that some are just better off than we are.

They are free to just pick up and take off on a vacation of a lifetime on a moment’s notice whenever they feel like it, while we are left with another mind-numbing week of debt, desperation and despair.

Their sudden, untimely disappearance left a conspicuous absence in our lives, like being at a party with no one there.

I couldn’t believe it at first. How could they be gone so quickly?

Predictably, I went through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance that our swallows have migrated south for the oncoming winter.

This hallowed event in the bird watcher’s year has occurred weeks earlier than it should have.

Far be it from me to waste valuable print space spewing half-baked conspiracy theories linking bird migrations to climate change, the shifting magnetic north pole and the inverted yield curve but connect the dots and make up your own mind.

The swifts have left, too.

The Vaux’s swift is a quick little bird that flies like a bat and lives its life almost constantly in flight.

It is said that the swift even mates on the wing.

The swifts and the swallows do a tremendous service removing insects from the air for the benefit of us all.

It’s been estimated that a pair of swifts makes a hundred trips to the nest each day with about 10,000 insects. That’s a whole lot of bugs we don’t have to swat.

It’s a wonder of nature thing to float down a river through the middle of a swift and swallow feeding frenzy as they wheel about within inches of your head, swooping down to pluck hatching insects from the surface of the water the instant they emerge.

These birds display an amazing aerial agility that’s hard to watch because they fly around in circles so fast, they’ll make your head spin.

I’ve seen people duck, thinking the birds are going to hit them, but, of course, they never do.

This does not stop us from advising that it is a good idea to wear a helmet on a birdwatching expedition, but then again it is still legal to bait the tourists.

And now they are gone — the birds, I mean.

The tourists will soon follow.

The swifts and the swallows are off to Mexico, Central America and Northern Venezuela, leaving us with a sense of loss and disappointment that we can’t go with them. Instead we wish them farewell until next year.

Until then we are left watching the drab and detestable mergansers.

These are fish-eating ducks we’ve watched grow from fuzzy little ducklings that fell out of their nests in the trees to full-grown predators on the verge of flight.

As a fisherman, I don’t like fish ducks very much.

Still, you’ve got to hand it to them. They are a lot smarter than people. You can tell by the way mergansers fish.

They maximize their catch by attacking their prey cooperatively.

Flocks of mergansers sweep up the river together in waves with the sun at their backs so everyone catches something., while humans fish competitively to see who can catch the most.

Not that it matters now.

With the fish gone, even the mergansers are leaving the river, seeking their prey out in the ocean.

All of which begs the question, with everyone leaving, what am I still doing here?


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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