PAT NEAL: The great migration

IT WAS A dark and stormy night. Then, it was daylight in the swamp.

Something was very wrong. All of my friends were gone.

It was lonely on the river after that.

I missed their curious antics, athletic performance and bizarre mating rituals.

I like to watch. No, these are not people. We’re talking birds.

People are boring to watch. Their predictable migrations from the watering holes to the feeding grounds and back to their burrows is generally a dismal parade of traffic jams, ill humor and bad breeding.

Birds, however, offer an endless display of grace, speed and athletic abilities humans can never match — no matter how smart they think they are.

Consider the Swift — a small bird about the size of a swallow that swoops down at high speed like the name implies, scooping insects as they hatch from the surface of the river. That’s after migrating from here to Eastern Bolivia and back in what might be one of the longest migrations of any creature on Earth, but is not. That distinction was recently claimed by a Bar-Tailed Godwit. This slender member of the Sandpiper clan was tagged with a GPS transmitter which recorded a non-stop migration record flying 8,435 miles from Alaska to Tasmania in nine days!

The Swallows are gone, too. They left when the nights got cool. Same with the beautiful Band-tailed pigeon who spent the summer feeding on elderberries and cooing in the alders, providing a relaxing theme to summertime. Gone, too, are the nighthawks. That weird member of the Goatsucker family swoops down hundreds of feet to pull out of a steep dive, making a roaring sound that some superstitious humans have mistaken for the growl of an angry beast.

Even our fair-weather friends, the buzzards, are gone. Just recently we saw a mass migration of Turkey Vultures that was … creepy. You want to be careful when you’re watching buzzards.

If you are fortunate enough to see a buzzard, be sure to keep moving. Don’t fall asleep on a gravel bar while watching buzzards.

Remember, buzzards find most of their rotten offal through their incredible sense of smell, so you may want to consider bathing once in a while before watching these fascinating birds. If buzzards are circling your home, you may want to consider going to the dump more often.

Meanwhile, one of the greatest migrations on Earth is happening right now, down what us sensitive, bird-watchingtypes call the Pacific Flyway. It’s like a highway for birds migrating from their summer homes to their winter refuge.

I once saw a flock of birds fly past La Push in a wavering line about a mile offshore, for three days. An old-timer said they were “whale birds.” This was sort of a catch-all term for a diverse group of pelagic species of phalaropes, petrels and shearwaters that fly by our coast in their millions.

As you read this, endless flocks of ducks, geese, cranes, swans and shorebirds are flying south along our western shore while being pursued by falcons, hawks and eagles.

I like to watch. The most dramatic scenes involve the team-hunting approach bald eagles use to hunt geese. While one eagle flushes the geese off their roosting ground, another dives on them as they are taking off. After an explosion of feathers, the eagle can fly off with a 10-pound goose, land on a tree limb to begin the messy process of plucking its dinner.

This can look like a blizzard of feathers. I was hoping the eagle would drop the goose for my dinner, but that did not happen.


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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