What a wild time the past two days have been. It started when Cisco, one of my blue-crowned conures, and Inca, my bronze-wing Pionus, were out in the trees enjoying a sunny Mother's Day. I had only just begin experimenting with Inca as a free-flyer. I had wanted Inca to stay on the deck but off he went. He and Cisco were doing fine in the nearby trees, when a couple of crows swooped in. Crows have never bothered Cisco, but they went after Inca... I guess he looks like a raptor to them. He does have a bit of a falcon look to him. Wish he was that fast!
Anyway, when the crows came in after him, off he went to the west over the neighbor's house and out of sight. I knew right then this could be an ordeal... and it could very well be that I would never see him again.
For the next three hours or so I trekked around the island, completed the circle and zig-zagged back and forth around our area. At one point I stopped under a huge fir tree with two bald eagles wing to wing on a high limb. What a beautiful sight. I only wished I could linger to enjoy them. I asked them to stay right there and make sure no smaller raptors entered their territory today. They looked down at me and nodded, "OK."
No sign, no sound of Inca, though. I finally came back home, dejected, but decided to go back out again, this time with Winston with me in his carrying cage. I chose Winston because he is a little more vocal than Cisco, and I figured he would call more often and louder. I was right. Winny called dependably about every 30 seconds. We made another sweep of our area of the island. No sign or sound again.
Finally we headed back home, but made an aside across the ball field at the camp. Winny was calling and Cisco and Charlie Brown were answering just a short distance away. But suddenly another voice entered the mix. What was that? I listened closely but could hear only the wind picking up. Then Winny called again and an answer came from the woods beynd the camp. Unmistakably Inca. I sat Winny's cage down and scanned the forest for a long while. The two parrots kept up their call and answer, which allowed me to zero in on Inca's general location. Even then it took a long while to finally spot him about a quarter of the way up a large Western red cedar tree, barely visible under a canopy of cedar fronds.
It wasn't that far away, perhaps 60 yards, and a clear shot to us. I called to Inca, hoping he would launch out and over to me, but no. So I decided to try to get closer to him. I plowed through the blackberry bushes and undergrowth to reach the huge tree. Thankfully he wan't really that high. I found a fallen log to stand on and I was only about a 20 degree angle down from him, and perhaps 15 yards away. I really thought he would bail out and fly to me, but he refused. It was like he was scared of those crows or something. Maybe he didn't trust his flying skills in all of that thicket... even though again, it was a straight shot to me.
By this time daylight was waning. I had hoped that as the day moved toward nightfall, he would get hungry and come to me, but it was apparent that he was sticking to his spot. And a good spot it was if he was to be outside. Fully sheilded by the cedar branches on all sides, relatively low down, yet high enough to be safe from ground predators, he had picked a very secure little nest.
But the idea of him spending the night in the forest didn't set well with me. I decided to give it a go climbing up to him, even though I knew he was too far out on the branch for me to access... even if I did manage to get up to his level. I brought my step ladder over from the house and clambored up to the first branches on the cedar tree. All of the lower branches on an old cedar tree like this one are always dead, so maneuvering up to the live growth is the trickiest part. Once you reach the live branches, a cedar tree offers amazingly wonderful climbing, with stout branches spaced ladder-like up to the top of the tree. Thankfully none of the dead branches gave way as I hoisted myself up maybe 20-25 feet off the ground to Inca's level.
There he was right out near the edge of the limb that I was sitting on... yet still five or six feet away. If I could have extended my body out that far, I might have been able to reach him, but the limb bowed downward precariously and I knew that going out on it was out of the question. The next possible solution was to use a branch to reach out to him and let him hop aboard, then pull him back in. That trick worked rescuing Cisco several times. The ideal dead branch was hanging right next to me. I snapped it off, removed excess twigs and gently pushed it toward Inca. He allowed it to come right up against his body... but then flew. I watched in the waning light to see if maybe, just maybe, he would fly toward home. Nope, he flew deeper into the forest and apparently up to a very open maple branch, much higher than his cedar tree perch.
By the time I reached the ground darkness was settling all around. I hurried to escape the bramble before I couldn't see anything. I looked for Inca but didn't see him. So I headed for home hoping for the best for Inca, who would spend a night in the wild.
I second-guessed myself over and over for scaring Inca out of what would have been a very safe spot for the night and into what I envisioned was a big branch out in the wide open where he might be easy pickings for and owl or raccoon. The only thing to do was to get some sleep and be ready at dawn to locate him again.
I left Charlie out on the deck house cage all night, so he could be ready to sound the early morning call. Temperatures were to dip into the 30s overnight, so I set up the portable heater so it would send a little warm air right up to him. No such luck for Inca on his maple tree branch. I had a fitfull night's sleep, worrying about Inca in between short sessions of shallow slumber. I was up at 5:00 and got the birds' food ready. Cisco went out to join Charlie on deck duty. Laika stayed upstairs unperturbed by the whole affair. And Winny and I trundled back across the ball field to find Inca.
I set Winny down to do his calling, and scanned with binoculars the area where I thought Inca had flown. No sign of him. Worse, there was no answer to Winston's calls. We waited for 30 minutes, an hour. Still no sign or sound. I decided to stomp around the area between the cedar tree and the maple tree to see if I could see any signs of a struggle... or perhaps a little parrot that got too cold overnight and fell out of the tree dead. But there was nothing. No feather, no blood, nothing but lots of underbrush and the soft tinkle of the creek.
So, once more, Winny and I made our rounds of the area. Winny did a great job as my designated yeller. That vaunted "conure screech" comes in handy sometimes. But we heard no answer. Now that we knew that he had not been spooked by the crows to the other side of the island yesterday, I was certain that Inca would not venture far from the area, still we could not locate him. I began to suspect the worst. An owl must have grabbed him in the dead of night or in the early morning twilight.
On the way back home I began the process of envisioning life without Inca. Not fun. Before we made it home I thought we should check the woods by the cedar tree one more time. As yesterday, a three parrot serenade ensued as Cisco and Charlie acknowledged Winston's calls from our backyard. But then, like magic, a voiced echoed from the woods. It was a not very dead Inca.
But where was he? From his calls, he was close to the maple tree but not in it. Whereas yesterday it was easy to zoom in on the precise tree he was in (if not the precise branch), today his voice seemed to be coming from a dozen different trees. As Winston called and Inca answered, I would walk back and forth beneath a particular grove of about seven trees. At times I thought I had it, and then he would sound behind me, or in front of me. Finally I narrowed it to two trees, another cedar and another maple, complicated by the fact that they intertwined near their tops. For several hours, Inca called and I tried to get a bead on him with my binoculars. At long last I spotted him, just shy of the very tip top of the cedar.
Not just any cedar. Raft Island is home to remnant forests of semi-old-growth trees, including this Western red cedar. This tree was probably never felled because it is a "split-top", a tree with one large trunk that splits into two trunks not far off the ground. One of the two split trunks was much skinnier than the other. Inca was sitting atop the larger trunk. I'm not so good with measurements, but the tree is at least 100 feet tall.
I scanned from bottom of the tree to top with my binoculars, thinking to myself, "Am I going to have to climb that?" No way, Jose, I decided. Inca would have to fly down on his own...if not today, after another night in the wild perhaps.
Once we had him located, and he didn't seem anxious to go anywhere, I hauled his cage and his food and water dishes over to the camp and set them up where he could see them. I thought surely today he'll be starving and ready to flap down in his helicopter style to get at those peas and corn and fresh water.
But no, he wasn't budging. I watched him in my binoculars for an hour or so, and made repeated forays back home to check on the other birds and check my phone messages. When I would return, he would be exactly in the same spot, as if he was glued. This is not a good sign, I thought. If he would just flutter down a little at a time it would be a manageable deal, but the fear of launching from 100 feet high and/or the prospect of being attacked by crows again kept Inca rooted to his spot.
After a cold night, the day quickly warmed up and the sun shone brightly. For the first time that I can recall, I saw a faint rainbow around the sun. I'll have to recheck my rainbow book to see how rare an occurence that is. I took it as a good omen, though I knew that the bright sun beating down on Inca was not a particular good thing. His position near the top of the tree offered little shade. Worse, he was standing out like a beacon to any serious raptors, or even malicious crow. Across the way I heard a murder (isn't that just the greatest of all animal grouping descriptions?) of crows teed off about something. Then I heard the mating twitter of the eagles. They were soaring again, doing their duty for me for yet another day.
About that time I saw Inca give a little flap, as if a half-hearted attempt to do something, anything, to get down. He ended up a branch or two lower than where he was. Hey, that's a good sign, I thought. Bail out of there, Inca. But soon he had clambored back up to where he had started. After that episode, he fell silent for a long while. Despite Winston's yelling and my hollering, he would not utter a sound. Though even in the binoculars he looked far away, I thought I saw him put his head on his back and take a nap.
The sun grew brighter and stronger. The rainbow disappeared. My face and hands were getting sunburned. I decided that Winny had had enough of this ordeal, so I took him back to the house and placed him in the big aviary with Cisco. When I returned to the Inca area, I called to Inca and he greeted me with a little squeak and that was all. I thought to myself, that kid is running out of energy. Then he fell silent for another hour or so. Again I closely scrutinized the cedar tree to see if climbing was entirely out of the question. Again, I decided that it was. For one thing, my little stepladder wouldn't even reach close to the first branches of this big tree.
Another hour passed, and then another. I went back and forth to the house. At the house I looked around for stuff that might be useable, if, let's say I did climb the tree. I didn't find much. No pitons, no crevasse rope, no levered pully. I did find a hammock sack that I could stuff Inca into for the trip down the tree.
Back at the camp I talked to the caretaker, Fred. He said about 100 kids were coming to the camp later today, around 5:00. He didn't know if that would help or hurt Inca's willingness to bail out of the tree. I didn't either. By this time I was thinking that nothing could help his willingness.
Around 4:00 I went back to Inca, called for him, and this time instead of answering with his call or screech he answered me with his little cry. It's a pathetic sound. He used to make it all the time when he was a baby when he was hungry. But since then he has only used it when he was hurt. He used it after Charlie Brown nearly took his beak off some months ago. And now he was using it again. The message was clear. "I can't come down. Help me."
At that point I knew that Inca would not come down. Ever. He would die up there of thirst or starvation, or be killed before that could happen.
I looked at the tree again. This is nuts, I thought. That tree is half as high as the University of Texas tower! But then I looked closer. It's a cedar tree, one of the world's most perfect climbing trees. The bottom quarter, tough going, not many branches, all dead. The upper three-fourths, a stairstep to Inca. I imagined the tree lying on the ground. I would just walk right down the trunk and pick him up. No problem. One part of me said, hey, the bird is going to die, are you going to die, too? Another part of me said, how could you live with yourself knowing that Inca died and that tree could have been climbed? One part of me said, tree-climbing is not your specialty. Another part reminded me that it was my ancestors' specialty... for millions of years.
I asked Fred if he happened to have a ladder. He did, a very good extension ladder. He asked me how high the bird was, and I told him, "pretty high". And I told him that I'm a very good climber. So he loaned me the ladder.
I raced back home to grab some cinammon rolls and Dr Pepper, champion climber's high calorie energy boost routine, and returned to climb the tree. But there was no Inca. He wouldn't answer me and I couldn't locate him in the binoculars. Just as I was ready to rescue him, had he moved from his post? Well, it doesn't do a whole lot of good to climb the tree if he's not in it. Maybe he flew out. I went back to the house and got Winston again. After multiple tries, Winny was able to get Inca to call a couple of times. Then I saw a blurry movement at the top of the cedar tree. Inca had moved a bit, but he was still at the top of the same tree. So up I went.
As I climbed I told the tree how much I appreciated it taking care of Inca today, and hoped it would see fit to allow me to scamper to the top and back down again without too much problem. It seemed to agree so I pushed onward, handhold after handhold, foothold after foothold. The lower branches were all dead and broken but mostly still stout, at least enough to hold a portion of my weight for a very short period of time. Except when resting on thick, live branches, I tried never to have all of my weight on any one branch. Some of the lower branches were over five inches thick, but I still did not trust a dead one. Moreover, the lower branches were more widely spaced, making the pace very slow.
Finally I reached the split in the trunk. My plan on the ground was to take the slender trunk up as it seemed to have more branches, and then cross over to the larger trunk once higher up. But on closer inspection I decided the safest thing to do would be to simply go up between the trunks. That worked well. At the next level I said a temporary goodbye to the smaller trunk and grasped the first rung of the big trunk. My hand hit dripping resin of a living branch. Alright, I thought, needed that.
As I proceeded, I talked to Inca. I certainly didn't want him getting spooked by something crashing through the limbs below him. It would be just delightful to get to the top of the tree and find that he had sailed to the next tree over. Meanwhile, he continued to call to me in his "help me" voice. That helped spur me onward.
As I had hoped, the upper half of the tree was great, actually easier than I had imagined. New branches were numerous. A step and handhold were always in reach and always a good one. No bad branches here. The big cedar's trunk remained hefty all the way up. I didn't really look down, just concentrated on the handholds and moving upwards. Inca's crying got closer and closer. Finally I could see him, about 10 feet up. He was so relieved to see me, I knew he wouldn't fly away. When I got up to a branch I could stradle, I reached for him and he jumped on my hand. Then I realized I had to put him down again so I could get the bag out for him. He was certainly not keen on the idea of going into a bag. I suppose he had fancied riding down on my shoulder, or maybe he thought we would just fly down from here. I would show him how to do it. Not today, my son.
We were not at the top of the tree, maybe 10 or 15 feet shy, but it was high enough for both me and Inca. I took an ultra quick lookaround and saw Colvos Passage and Commencement Bay shimmering from the other side of the peninsula. This is bad, I thought. There are airplanes flying around lower than this. I really should have taken the time to look around 360 degrees to see what else we saw, but I guess I was afraid I would see the Pacific Ocean over the top of the Olympic Mountains off to the west, so we just headed down.
I bundled him inside the bag, then stuffed the bag inside my jacket, and moved off my perch. Yesterday, the climb down was much easier and faster than the climb up. Today was the same. We came down quickly, slowing when we hit the split and again as we got into the treacherous lower dead-limb zone. Fred was there to help us down and gave me pointers on what angle to take as we made the final descent to the ladder. And then we were down to solid ground. My hair, matted with cedar resin, fell over my sweaty face, and all I could think to say when Inca and I were safe was, "Boy, should have put my hair back before doing that." Fred laughed.
Back home Inca took a long drink of water and dove into a plate of food. The little boy was literally starving. I doubt he would have survived another cold night outside.
Tonight he's sleeping in his own bed. I'm glad to have him back. I'm glad we had the adventure we did. It was one of those rare days of your life you never forget. I'm glad the eagles kept the raptors and crows at bay. I'm glad Winston was such a good helper. I'm glad it was a cedar tree and not anything else. I'm really, really glad that we humans were made in the trees. And I'll be very glad in the future if we don't have any more adventures like these.
End of tale... for now.