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January 24th, 2001 12:00 am Chris Barker | Outdoors


Live Nude Athene cunicularia!

On a lark, I tell my friend Ben I want to go birding with him sometime. A week later, I get an email: "A couple of people have reported a Burrowing Owl on Smithfield Road at Baskett Slough. It'll be worth the effort looking for this guy."

Thus begins my initiation.

Suddenly, for no other reason than "it's rare to have one of these guys out this far west this time of year," I want to hunt down this bird and blast it to kingdom come--whoa! sorry, wrong subculture!--I mean, look at it.

So we drive toward Salem one Saturday with Ben's birding books, binoculars and a fancy-schmancy tripod-mounted spotting scope. I start picking Ben's bird-addled brain. "What do you do," I ask, "when you see a bird you've never seen before?" Ben says you put it on your life-list. All real birders keep a life-list of every bird species they've ever seen. Ben's got over 300 on his, including some rather exotic breeds he gathered on a guided Costa Rican birding trip.

Sure, Costa Rica. But has he ever seen a Burrowing Owl?

"Yep. But not this far west, this time of year."

We enter the Baskett Slough National Wildlife Preserve and stop near an old barn to scrutinize a blackberry thicket for sparrow action. And there they are: sparrows. Golden-crowned ones, to be exact. A whole chirping, chittering slew of them. Suddenly, a great warbling mass of red-winged blackbirds swoops in and fill the treetops, singing snatches of a Beatles song. Off in the meadow beside us, a harrier hawk is on lazy, circling mouse-patrol. The place is all of a sudden a birdy Shangri-La. Then a pickup truck pulls up.

"You know, there's a Burrowing Owl people've been saying's up the road a ways," the driver drawls. Then he drives off. Ben explains the obvious: Between birders, camaraderie runs high. Ben found out about this oddly westward Burrowing Owl through the regular email list run by Oregon Birders On-Line. The Burrowing Owl is the hot topic of the week.

I'll be honest. From the start, I have little faith that we'll find this owl. Baskett Slough's a big place. Ben's nuts if he believes a lone owl is going to fly out of nowhere and start preening for us.

Then, of course, the car scrunches to a halt and Ben points. How he ever even saw it, huddled and shivering in a rain-soaked ditch, is a mystery understood only by the birding elite. But there it is indeed, in all its burrowing, owlish glory: the majestic, elusive, rarely-seen-this-far-west-this-time-of-year Burrowing Owl! Athene cunicularia in your face, baby!

The bird swivels its massive, tawny head 360 degrees and looks at us with great, golden, gibbous eyes. Frankly, it looks freaked out, pissed, and thoroughly disturbed. But I'd be lying to you if I said I felt anything less than thoroughly gratified.

"Well, there he is," Ben says. He reaches for his tripod.

Check out the latest sightings at the Oregon Birders On-Line website:

Better yet, sign up for the listserve:

Check out the latest sightings at the Oregon Birders On-Line website:

Better yet, sign up for the listserve:
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