Sketchbook ~ Long Weekend Wildlife

Barred Owl (Strix varia) | ink

On the May long weekend I left the city for a bit of island recovery away from work/stress/city/noise. I took my sketching kit into the park there and wandered off the path, looking for things to draw. It was early evening and the end of an unseasonably hot, muggy day. The forest was warm and all the scents of all the green things were mingling with the smell of mud and moisture. Even the the little plants by the path that, on their own, smell acrid, had wrapped their scent up with the mosses, ferns and cottonwood sticky buds to create the most beautiful perfume. There is nothing humans can make that smells so good.

It was one of those perfect, slightly mystical evenings where everything seems that much more and wonderful things happen. Like the owl.

Barred owls (Strix varia) make, in addition to a typically owlish hoot, an odd scream. I swear this sound was the model for the ambient noise in the movie The Ring.

I was climbing up as small hill, covered in loose rock when I heard the scream. I looked up, and there was the owl, sitting halfway up a maple tree, directly in front of me. I climbed a little higher up the hill until I was more at the level of the owl and then did a few quick sketches of it while is screamed and preened and swiveled its neck around every time it heard the crows calling. The sun was going down and was filtering in brilliant yellow patches through the trees, back-lighting the bird. In that light it was a little difficult to make out too many details.

After about 10 minutes it launched itself off its perch and flew toward and past me, about a foot above my head and 5 feet beyond the edge of the cliff I was sitting on. There was no noise as it glided past me, into the darker trees beyond.

As I climbed down the hill another owl gave a loud hoot as it flew to a tree a little further down the path and then turned on its perch to watch me. With its grey and brown feathers it was almost invisible against the trunk. Without the sound I would never have seen it.

Killarney Lake, Bowen Island | pencil

Further along, at the edge of the lake is a fallen tree that protrudes like a pier into the water. Yellow water lilies (Nuphar polysepala) grow all around – perfect places to find the shed skins of dragonfly larvae as well as small green treefrogs.

As I sat sketching, loons called across the lake and the bats came out to hunt the insects. Tree frogs sang in the surrounding forest and a noisy pair of geese crashed into the water close to where I was sitting. Little things surfaced and splashed in the still water.

When the sun finally disappeared completely the lake and trails were lit by a bright almost full moon. On my way back to the parking lot I stopped in at the meadow to see if there were any deer grazing in the dark. At the edge of the meadow stood a large doe – the mass of her body, slightly paler against the trees.

Yellow water lilies (Nuphar polysepala), Killarney Lake, Bowen Island | pencil

I went back the next evening. The air was different. The day hadn’t been as humid and warm and forest smelled less. I went searching up the hill for the owls and caught sight of one winging through the trees. In the distance I could hear it calling but couldn’t find where it was roosting.

I went back to the same fallen tree to draw the water lilies. Partway through the drawing there was a loud splash. It made me jump. Ripples radiated from a position in the lake 12 feet from where I was sitting. A few moments and a dozen feet on a beaver popped up and dove down with a slap of its tail. It did this for a while before spending the next 20 minutes cruising back and forth through the lilies and submerged stumps – edging closer and closer to me before it finally disappeared.

Once again the pair of Canada Geese landed in the lake and began their noisy claim of the partially submerged real estate. Over just two evenings I had already begun to recognise the schedule of the lake’s wildlife – what time the frogs started to sing, what time the bats came out, when the loons stopped calling and the Canada Geese arrived. Before the sun went down, I drove home with the windows open so I could hear the Swainson’s Thrushes singing somewhere among the trees. This a long, moist, echoing trill is one of my favourite bird songs.