Most of my experiences with bushwhacking (struggling through deep undergrowth) have been unpleasant at best, forays into the darkest side of my personality at worst. They were desperate attempts to navigate from one location to another brought on by a lack of knowledge of the terrain or lack of desire to take the long way around. Essentially, I never set out to purposefully bushwhack and though I may conjure a faint glow of pride at enduring a challenging situation, I’ve certainly never looked back on such a session and thought, “Well that was worth the sticks in the eyes and slashes to the legs and whippings with Devil’s Club!” Until today. Today, I crashed (as quietly as possible) through willows and salmonberries and even some devil’s club, following biologist Greg Ferguson in a quest to locate nesting Western Screech Owl in their habitat.
Spider webs draped my face, branches probed my ears, thorns ripped at my hands and logs bashed my shins. That familiar profanity-inducing wave of vexation welled up in me and I was seized by the urge to blunder blindly forward to the path that I knew was tantalizingly close. We stopped as Greg spotted promising territory. He played the recorded call and then we listened. Gradually, my eyes began to appreciate the surroundings, instead of seeing them as impediments. There was a tunnel of clear space about a meter off the ground through which an unidentifiable bird somehow rocketed, inches away from me on a well travelled flight path. Other birds called out their territories then quieted and in that pause we heard a soft trilling response call and I saw wings flash behind Greg. I pointed towards the movement and we converged on the area as quickly and quietly as possible and there against a cedar tree sat a somewhat bemused looking Western Screech Owl. I shifted position slightly to take a photo and realized that a second owl was watching us from another tree. As I met that stern gaze, the surroundings differentiated themselves further. That branch that loomed precipitously at my eye level became a perch for the owl to watch a nesting cavity, those tangled shrubs became protective cover. The canopy above gave welcoming shade and coolness. We observed awhile longer, then one bird flew off and we followed soon after, not wanting to disturb them in what was likely their nesting territory. As we emerged onto easier going, I commented that I would normally just muscle my way through that kind of terrain hoping to get from A to B without realizing there was anything of value between the two.
And this is one of the challenges to existence that Western Screech Owls and other species face. The area they inhabit is typically surrounded by the kind of terrain that people want to clear. On our way to the next observation site, we talked about the complex issue of preserving the owl’s habitat while allowing for expansion of human endeavour. My mind is still tumbling with these deep matters. When I consider how I felt while meeting the gaze of the owl, however, I’m settled about one concept: While my previous interpretation of bushwhack leaned towards the idea of assault, I’ll now embrace another of its synonyms: discover.