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The Encounter

By Thomas Bancroft

I cupped my hands around my ears. The sweet evening song of a Swainson’s Thrush drowned out all but the faint babble of the creek down the short draw. A distant second one made an echo of the first. Their opening whistles and spiral flourishes were spectacular. At any other time, I would have stopped and listened, but there was another sound I was straining to hear.

The US Forest Service stand where the Great Grays raise their young
(photo by Julie Vanderwal)

The previous evening, Julie, Craig, and I had come along this trail in Okanogan National Forest just as final twilight had been fading. The “sher-rick” call that repeated every few seconds came from a patch of Douglas firs and lodgepole pines across a small creek. We searched for thirty minutes for the source of the sound, but the light was mostly gone, and we could detect no movement. Craig and I had come back, but right then all I could hear was the thrushes.

This was prime habitat for the gray ghost of the northern boreal forest. Great Gray Owls are large birds, looking bigger than a Great Horned Owl, although actually weighing a little less. A female may approach three pounds, and a male a little over two. They prefer mature forests that have numerous meadows, bogs, and small openings spread through the trees. This species breeds throughout Alaska, Canada and across Northern Europe and Asia, but only in some high elevation dry forests in the Western United States. These rodent eaters are often quite shy, making them difficult to find. In winter, they occasionally fly out of their remote homes, but my searches had always failed to find one.

After moving in the direction of the previous night’s screech, I put a pair of headsets over my ears and pointed my microphone into the woods. Its parabolic reflector would amplify any sound. There it was, the “sher-rick” call of an owlet, persistent but faint, and a little off to our left, and then it stopped. We crept in that direction, scanning up and down trees, looking for a shadow or blob that might be a roosting owlet. Young Great Grays will jump out of their nests when only a few weeks old. Much like a rambunctious teenager, they strive for independence well before they can fly or care for themselves. After tumbling to the earth, the young owls will climb leaning trees to get off the ground and then hop from branch to branch back into the canopy. Usually, they sit right against the trunk on a horizontal branch waiting for their parents to feed them.

Twice more over the next half hour, I put the headsets on to refine the direction toward the begging. Finally, after moving several hundred yards back into the forest, we heard the whining child without the aid of the parabolic reflector. Craig and I eased toward a small meadow with a clump of larches, firs, and pines surrounding it. I stepped around a six-inch lodgepole pine and scanned every tree in front of me, up and down the trunks. Craig, who stood tight by my left shoulder, tapped my arm and pointed almost straight up. There, forty feet up a pine sat a downy owlet on a small side branch. It was right against the trunk as expected, his clawed talons curling over the branch, and his eyes looking straight down at us. I started the sound recorder, setting the microphone down pointing into the coppice and focused my long lens on the owlet. As my camera started to capture pictures, Craig, again, tapped my shoulder pointing this time across in front of me.

(This and remaining photos by Thomas Bancroft)

Two owlets, both with slightly longer wing and tail feathers than the first, sat about two feet apart on a horizontal branch nearly forty feet up and one gave that “sher-rick” call while they both stared right at us. Their dark eyes gave the impression of curiosity and amazement in seeing these strange two-legged creatures that had walked into their home. All three seemed totally unafraid of us. As I focused my camera, an adult flew silently into the frame, gliding up to land beside the right, screeching owlet where it passed a vole from its mouth to the young, and then dropped off the branch flying back through the forest. The ghost had come and gone.

The breath slowly left my lungs as I continued to stare at the one with a vole hanging from its mouth like a long piece of thick brown licorice. These owls are not rare in their prime habitat, but because these dry interior montane forests are remote and inaccessible, few people have the chance to see one. Adults hunt from perches, and a perfect hunting site is a short tree on the edge of a meadow where the bird can scan for rodents. The facial feather disk on their oversized head directs sound to their acute ears, and they hunt almost entirely by hearing the prey. In winter, these owls can plunge through a foot or more of snow to snare a mouse or vole. Pocket gophers burrow through the soil and are another favorite food.
After a minute, the owlet wolfed down the vole in one giant swallow, and then flew behind trees to land precariously on the top of a subalpine fir where it swayed back and forth in the breeze. Its sibling followed it back into the forest. The adult came in again, landing in the middle of the thicket where it glared right at me while another vole hung from its mouth. Then the second adult arrived also with something in its mouth. It was as if these two predators had flown down to the local corner store for a snack of fresh live meat for the children.

For 30 minutes, I stood watching silently while Craig snuck to my right to see if he could spot where the other two had gone. An adult came in at least twice more but never to the one above my head. That baby yawned a few times, stretched its wings, flexed one or the other foot, but never moved. Occasionally, it became bored of us and stared into the forest. It never begged or seemed distressed that a parent didn’t come visit. The light was fading, and we decided to back out of this place and leave the owls to their own. As we strolled through the forest, the occasional screeches from the owlet pushed us along, and a cloud of mosquitos buzzed around our heads. Neither of us thought to swat at those that feasted on our blood.

Flying Squirrels

Flying squirrels help the forests they live in!

Flying squirrels help the forests they live in!

Truffles, also known as hypogeous fungi, live a mysterious existence, fruiting below ground in the mineral soil/organic layer interface. While their mushroom relatives fruit above ground and loudly display their wild array of colors, textures and shapes, truffles quietly play out their important roles out of human sight. Truffles provide food for various mammals (and in turn the predators), and their mycorrhizal fungi networks contribute to the health of certain trees, including Douglas-fir. Flying squirrels are adept at hunting for truffles, drawn by the aroma. The truffle spores and bacteria pass through the squirrels’ digestive tracts, ready to colonize the roots of nearby trees and understory plants with mycorrhizal fungi.

“Mycorrhizal fungi enhance the ability of trees to absorb water and nutrients from soil, and they move photosynthetic carbohydrates from trees into the soil,” explains Andy Carey, former research biologist with the Pacific Northwest Research Station in Olympia, WA. “In turn, this carbon supports a vast array of microbes, insects, nematodes, bacteria, and other organisms in the soil.1” Fungal networks actually “take up minerals and water from soil and transport them into the fine feeder roots for use by the host plant.2”

Several species of truffles grow in Eastern WA, when fir, pine, hazelnut or other tree species establish mycorrhizal relationships with truffle-forming fungi species. Squirrels and other forest-dwelling mammals play an essential role in dispersing fungal spores, thus helping to complete the web of life in the forest. “Truffle species also perform many important ecosystem functions including organic matter decomposition, nutrient cycling and retention, soil aggregation, and transferring energy through soil food webs. These functions contribute to the overall health, resiliency, and sustainability of forest ecosystems.2”

1. Science Findings, Issue 60
2. Diversity, Ecology, and Conservation of Truffle Fungi in Forests of the Pacific Northwest, Trappe et al,

Flying squirrel in nesting box photo by Chloe Lahondere and Clement Vinauger
Flying squirrel in Lost Lake nesting box photo by Chloe Lahondere and Clement Vinauger

Supporting the Northern flying squirrel is one way that natural resource professionals are working to recover the threatened spotted owl. Learn more:

Read the lyrics to our song about fungi and flying squirrels on the Wild Mushrooms and Fungi Ecology event page.

Okanogan Highlands Alliance and Washington State Attorney General File Clean Water Act Lawsuits

For immediate release:

Okanogan Highlands Alliance and Washington State Attorney General File Clean Water Act Lawsuits Against Mining Companies for Pollution from Mining Activities

Contact: Sarah Kliegman, Co-Executive director, 509-560-4429,

May 7, 2020
Spokane, WA – Okanogan Highlands Alliance (OHA) and the Washington State Attorney General’s Office have both filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court against Crown Resources Corporation and Kinross Gold U.S.A., Inc. for water pollution violations at the Buckhorn Mine located near Chesaw, WA in north-central Washington State. The suits are related to the consistent and ongoing discharges of pollutants at the site above the levels allowed by the company’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

“Our community will not stand for the pollution of our waters,” states OHA’s co-Executive Director, Sarah Kliegman, PhD. “The mine has not taken sufficient actions to either investigate the fate of pollutants at the site or to clean up the pollution. This lawsuit is intended to impel the company to clean up their mess.”

Buckhorn Mountain with Field's Pond in the foreground
Buckhorn Mountain, with Field’s Pond and Nootka rose in the foreground

OHA filed a citizen suit under the Clean Water Act because of the consistent and ongoing violations at the Buckhorn Mine. OHA is represented by Paul Kampmeier of Kampmeier & Knutsen, PLLC. Kampmeier said, “Mine operators must be accountable for the pollution they create. They cannot be allowed to pollute state waters with impunity or to leave a legacy of water pollution after mining activities have ceased.”

OHA and the State’s filing allege that Crown/Kinross violated the Clean Water Act by failing to contain pollutants to the immediate mine area known as the capture zone and that the mine has been discharging more pollutants than permitted for the past five years. The lawsuits also contend that Crown/Kinross failed to submit reports required when certain pollutants have exceeded trigger levels as well as various plans and notifications required by the permit.

The Buckhorn Mine operated in the Okanogan Highlands of north-central Washington State from 2008-2017. There have been ongoing discharges of pollutants from the mine site since mining began. While the Washington State Department of Ecology has issued violations and penalties over the years, Crown/Kinross have not taken the actions necessary to contain their pollution within the capture zone.

The most recent NPDES permit that regulates the Buckhorn Mine was issued in 2014; it has been administratively extended, and is still in force. The permit requires that the water near the mine be returned to near-baseline conditions. These requirements have been upheld by the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board, Ferry County Superior Court, and the Washington State Court of Appeals.

OHA is a public interest organization in the Okanogan Highlands of north-central Washington State. OHA has been involved at the Buckhorn Mine through the environmental review and permitting processes. OHA has analyzed the monitoring data since the mine was built in 2008, continually advocating for environmental protection.

The Beaver Believers: a feature documentary by Sarah Koenigsberg (SOLD OUT)

We hope you will join us for the last indoor event of the season! We will screen The Beaver Believers, by Sarah Koenigsberg. This feature documentary has been widely recognized for the story it weaves of the engineering feats of North America’s largest rodent and the people who are devoted to them. It is a hopeful story of resilience in the face of climate change, and it even features some familiar Okanogan County faces! We will also be featuring an update on OHA’s Triple Creek Restoration project. There we are working to imitate the work of the beaver.

Landscapes and Landforms of the Okanogan Highlands

Everywhere you look in the Okanogan Highlands you can see evidence of the movement of glaciers. The trick is knowing what to look for! On March 6, CWU geography professor Karl Lillquist used local landscapes and landforms to demonstrate how glaciers and other factors shaped our region during the last glaciation in our area, 12,000-18,000 years ago.

Okanogan Highlands Alliance (OHA) and Okanogan Land Trust (OLT) are excited to be co-hosting three-part series of educational events focused on geology. OHA hosted the first event on Friday, March 6th, when Dr. Karl Lillquist returned to Tonasket for the Highland Wonders presentation. OLT will host the second event at some point in the future, but it has been postponed to protect public health. When we are able to resume public events, Bruce Bjornstad will present as part of the OkaKnowledgy lecture series in Okanogan. The third event, also led by Dr. Lillquist, will take participants on a field trip in the Highlands, hopefully this summer! All three events will highlight the fascinating geological processes shaping our hills and valleys. The indoor events are free and open to all; the field trip will require pre-registration with priority given to OHA and OLT members. Anyone can become a member!

Karl Lillquist
Karl Lillquist shares about the Geology of the Okanogan Highlands during an OHA Highland Wonders tour.

Friday, March 6, Community Cultural Center of Tonasket:
Dr. Lillquist led the audience in “explor[ing] the origins and evolution of landscapes and landforms in the Okanogan Highlands.” He described how the Okanogan Highlands landscape has been sculpted over time by glaciers and other forces. Specifically, he explained how “The Okanogan Highlands, [which is] characterized by rolling uplands, punctuated by a diverse array of valleys…has been shaped by various tectonic, weathering, landslide, stream, glacier, and wind-related processes.“

Dr. Lillquist is a professor in the Geography Department at Central Washington University, and has vast experience exploring and teaching about the geology of our state. His area of expertise is geomorphology, a field focusing on landforms and how they originated. Throughout our three-part series, we hope that you will join us in looking at the Highlands landscape through geologic time — you might never look at our highland hills and valleys the same way again!

Highland Wonders events feature the natural history of the Okanogan Highlands and surrounding areas. OHA offers educational programming on the first Friday of the month from November through April. The presentations, which start at 6:30 pm, are free to the public (donations are welcome), and clock hours are available for educators. The events take place at the Tonasket Community Cultural Center, and dinner is available before the presentations. (meat and vegetarian options available, $10 a plate).

For more info, or to become a member of OHA, visit our support webpage, or contact (509-429-4399). For more info about OLT, visit:

Chew on This

Chew on this

January 31st at the Merc Playhouse, 7pm

101 S. Glover St, Twisp, WA

An Edu-tainment event about People and Beavers Rebuilding Watershed Resilience …Naturally!

are pleased to invite you to join special guests Julie Vanderwal, Ken Bevis, Sandy Vaughn & Sarah Koenigsberg for an evening of music, engagement, joy & learning about people & beavers teaming up for watershed restoration!

For more info
General Admission – Suggested Donation $10

Chew on this

Native Stink Bugs and their Plant Hosts

with Jim Hepler

February 7, 2020

On February 7, 2020, Jim Hepler, of the Beers Laboratory at WSU’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, joined us to share his extensive knowledge (and humor) of native stink bugs and their life history. He gave an enlightening overview of the diversity of stink bugs found in eastern Washington, and expounded on the challenges and rewards, and all that is known and unknown about these creatures. Jim’s palpable interest was contagious, sparking the curiosity of our local community.

Fun facts:
-Stink bugs can drill through nut husks to feast on the nutrient-rich innards
-Pesticides are futile in fighting stink bugs since they are constantly on the move into and out of orchards
-Stink bugs have very specific relationships with other insects who will lay their eggs inside stink bug eggs or drill through adults’ exoskeletons to feast
-Stink bugs are very capable of killing themselves with their own noxious fumes!

Rough stink bug
Rough stink bug (Brochymena species) Photo by Jen Weddle

Highland Wonders presentations feature the natural history of the Okanogan Highlands and surrounding areas. OHA provides these presentations on the first Friday of the month from November through April. These presentations, which start at 6:30 pm, are free to the public (donations are welcome), and clock hours are available for educators. The events take place at the Tonasket Community Cultural Center, and dinner is available before the presentations.

Consperse stink bug
Consperse stink bug (Euschistus conspersus) on a bitterbrush plant (Purshia tridentata, a favored host). Photo by Jim Hepler.

Why Floodplains Matter

and what we are doing locally to restore them

Beaver Creek in autumn

On Friday, November 1, John Crandall shared “Why Floodplains Matter and what we are doing locally to restore them,” with a crowd of 70 at the Community Cultural Center of Tonasket. For decades, floodplains and wetlands were viewed as “wasted” space and they have been diked, filled, drained, mined, and otherwise altered to make room for increased human activity. These activities disconnect floodplains from adjacent streams, degrading habitat and leaving wildlife, fish, and water to deteriorate. Why do these floodplains matter — what services do they provide, not only for fish and wildlife, but for humans too? What can we do to bring them back into a healthy condition? John Crandall returned to the Highland Wonders series to help answer these questions and to share about a variety of projects happening in Okanogan County that are aimed at restoring floodplain processes and making our aquatic ecosystems healthier — from the quality and quantity of our water to the abundance of our fish and wildlife.

John shared videos and photos depicting the ways that floodplains interact with their waterways, and how spring flooding depends on the shape and structure of the surrounding landscape. Floodplains are crucial to the lifecycle of many fish, who time the hatching of their young to coincide with spring floods because of the protection, food, and downstream push that floodplains and high water provide to young fish. In many areas, human activity (such as road building) has disrupted or changed the structure of the floodplains, reducing their size and cutting fish off from their traditional rearing grounds and/or travel corridors. Projects throughout Okanogan County are working to restore floodplain functionality, to reconnect streams and rivers with their floodplains and provide ways for fish to access flooded areas.

Okanogan Highlands Alliance Welcomes New Executive Directors

The Board of Directors of Okanogan Highlands Alliance (OHA) is happy to announce their decision to hire Jennifer (Jen) Weddle and Sarah Kliegman, as Co-Directors to lead the community-based nonprofit.  Jen, a former member of the OHA Board of Directors, has a BA in Biology-Environmental Studies and teaches at the Outreach Program at Tonasket School District. Sarah, who volunteered with OHA from an early age and grew up in the Okanogan Highlands, recently returned to the Okanogan after working as a chemistry professor at the Claremont Colleges. Sharing the position will enable each of them to balance work and family life while providing OHA with a unique blend of experience and expertise.

“We are happy to welcome such highly qualified professionals to lead OHA into the future,” stated George Thornton, OHA’s Board President. “Their complementary skills and experience will be a great asset to the organization.”

After more than 25 years of service, David Kliegman, OHA’s founding ED, notified the Board in January that he would like to retire. Since that time, the Board has been working on transition planning.

“It has been an honor to serve as the spearhead for this community effort to use science and the law to stop the open-pit mine that was proposed on Buckhorn Mountain and to begin OHA’s successful restoration and education programs,” stated the retiring ED. “I will continue to track the mine’s efforts to clean up the pollution but look forward to spending more time with my family and carving wood.

In 2007, OHA settled its appeal of the underground mine in hopes that increased cooperation would evolve into greater protection of the environment, but the company’s efforts have fallen short of what is needed to stem the flow of pollutants from the site.

“Since the mining company has been unable to control the pollution from their mine, the new directors will have our work cut out for us,” states Sarah Kliegman, OHA’s new Co-Director. “We will continue the effort to try to get [the WA Department of] Ecology to hold the mine accountable for its pollution.”

“We look forward to further developing OHA’s robust restoration and public education programs which repair damaged wetlands and bring experts in natural history to share the wonders in Tonasket and the Highlands,” states Jennifer Weddle, OHA’s other new Co-Director. “OHA’s leadership will help to improve and better understand the ecology of the Okanogan Highlands.”

The Okanogan Highlands Alliance is a non-profit organization that works to educate the public about watershed issues, including the environmental threats of large-scale mining. For more information go to

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