Join Okanogan Highlands Alliance in learning about the ecosystems and wildlife of the Okanogan Highlands of north central Washington! In this podcast, scientists and educators share their stories and knowledge of the natural history of our unique area - the Okanogan Highlands. To learn more about OHA, please visit our websiteokanoganhighlands.org.
OHA is delighted to ring in the new year with Episode 3 of the Highland Wonders Podcast: Bighorn Sheep of the Okanogan. In this hour-long episode, Jeff Heinlen of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shares his fascinating expertise and entertaining stories of bighorn sheep, the history of the herds in our valley, and gives an update on how our local herds are currently doing. And now without further ado, a story from Jack, Nature Detective!
Jack, Nature Detective: season 1, episode 3: Bighorn Sheep of the Okanogan
Meet Jack, Nature Detective: Jack is inquisitive, skeptical, creative, quirky, determined, and a friend to ALL critters. His observations of subtle clues and brilliant reasoning make him, quite possibly, one of the world’s most talented nature detectives. Like most of us, Jack’s understanding of the world comes from his own life experiences. He is five years old, and his investigative skills are top notch. If you were to stop by his house you might find our Nature Detective in the midst of an experiential study of squirrel movement, or determining the optimal shelter and food stores for his new pet grasshopper, named Grasshopper. Today, we will share a mystery that Jack uncovered in the Okanogan Highlands. What clues can you uncover in the story?
“Hey dad, want to hear a riddle?” Without waiting for an answer, Jack recites, “What has a hard head, loves to climb and likes to lick salt?” His dad knows immediately: “Your sister.” “No!” Jack yells. “A wild great horn…” “...Owl?” his dad finishes for him. “No!” Jack yells again. “They have four legs, no wings, and huge, curly horns. We saw one on our hike today!”
Today Jack and his cousins adventured up the Whistler Canyon Trail near Oroville. After climbing the long, steep path, they stopped on a bench to catch their breath and look around. The kids brought their binoculars, so they scanned the hillsides and cliffs for signs of life – and there it was.
Silhouetted against the sky, high up on the edge of a cliff, an animal was standing very still. As Jack reported, it had four legs, a sturdy body, no wings, and a huge, curled head ornament. As they watched, the animal picked its way along the cliff, and the kids gasped to see it balancing so precariously on the rocks. “How does it not tip over? Its head looks so heavy!” Jack wondered out loud. “And how does it climb those rocks like that? I would fall!” As they watched, more animals “appeared” (they had been there the whole time but were so well camouflaged and so still that the kids hadn’t seen them). Some were laying down, others munching on something. Jack was curious why different animals had different size horns.
What was this amazing creature? Jack, the Nature Detective used his trusty process of elimination, “It can’t be a cat or a dog – they don’t have horns. It can’t be a goat – they are white, and live high in the mountains. Could it be a deer? Definitely not!” If there is one thing Jack knows, it is that: deer have antlers, sheep have horns.” Jack’s cousin, Fred adds, “Those have to be horns because antlers fall off, and those horns look like they have been growing for a loooong time.” The cousins decided that it must be a sheep! Elliot, who is a little older than the others, has seen signs along the road, warning drivers to watch out for “great horned...no, wait...bighorn sheep!” Jack, the Nature Detective is satisfied for now, but he is excited to listen to what Jeff Heinlen, from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, has to say about the bighorn sheep of Okanogan County. That should help him know for sure.
Learn a little bit about Okanogan Highlands Alliance and a lot about the grouse of the world, with special focus on the grouse species that inhabit Okanogan County, WA, with Dr. Michael Schroeder. Also, join Jack, the Nature Detective, as he explores the Okanogan Highlands in this story for kids of all ages:
“Look! A chicken!” Jack squawks. His little sister laughs, claps her hands, and hollers, “Let’s collect the eggs!” But Jack frowns, and says “Wait, hold on. It can’t be a chicken, that doesn’t make sense...” Jack and his family have just crossed a grassy field to get to the edge of a creek. They are looking for animal footprints in the new snow on an early winter day, and have just been startled by a heavy-bodied bird clattering away across the field. The bird didn’t go far, and it really didn’t fly very high. By Jack’s estimation, it only flew “about three cars high.”
“Where would a chicken come from? I don’t see any houses. Chickens need houses, and roosts, and nest boxes.” Jack gasps and his eyes get big, “Mom! Are there wild chickens? Or is this someone’s lost chicken? Or... is that not a chicken?” Jack thinks hard, “Time to collect clues. Nature Detective is on the case.”
This bird is smaller than the chickens that he knows from his grandma’s house. But the chickens he has seen fly three cars high, just like this bird. Jack thinks, “maybe it’s a baby, and that’s why it’s small. But... why would a baby chicken wander off on its own?” Jack has recently conducted a study of his grandma’s chickens and this is what Jack knows about chickens:
They can be lots of different colors.
They eat seeds and bugs.
They lay eggs, unlike bats, that have live birds.
Some chickens grow feathers right over their eyes so they can’t see.
The chicken facts that Jack knows sort of fit with the mystery bird, but it’s just too weird to see a chicken out in the wild. The family follows in the direction that the bird went, trying not to scare it again.
Jack stops and puts his binoculars to his eyes. He scans the branches of some trees along the creek. He scans the snow. He stops. “There it is!” Jack whispers. His mom, dad, and sister all put their binoculars to their eyes and aim the lenses where Jack is looking. There is a bird there, walking awkwardly right on top of the snow. “How does he do that?” Jack wonders. They can see that this is not a chicken. It is speckled, with bright yellow eyebrows, and it’s tail is too pointy to be a chicken. It could be a relative of a chicken. Suddenly the bird disappears. “Where’d he go? That’s not a chicken!” They decide to leave the bird alone, since winter is a hard time to be a wild bird.
When Jack gets home his dad pulls up their favorite website - Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Jack likes this website because he can search for birds by shape and color! It doesn’t take long for him to find a whole bunch of chicken-shaped birds with yellow eyebrows. He thinks his mystery bird was a grouse - but which one? Jack reviews his clues: a grassy habitat, smaller than a chicken, speckled, yellow eye brows, pointy tail, walking on top of the snow. “A sharptail grouse!” Jack hypothesizes. How can he know for sure? For more clues about whether Jack’s guess might be correct, and to learn all about the different types of grouse that live in the Okanogan, Washington and the world, check out this podcast episode, Grouse of the Okanogan, with Dr. Michael Schroeder.
Episode Credits: Presentation by Dr. Michael Schroeder, Grouse song by Julie Vanderwal with words by poet Will Nixon (find "My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse" and more at willnixon.com). Episode illustration by Diana Weddle. Theme song by Tyler Graves and Andy Kingham. Don't forget to check out OHA's website at okanoganhighlands.org for more information or to support our efforts to protect the Okanogan Highlands!
Join Okanogan Highlands Alliance and Matt Marsh, wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service in Tonasket, Washington to learn about the biology of Great Gray Owls, the phantom of the north. We hope you also enjoy this accompanying story!
Jack, Nature Detective: inquisitive, skeptical, creative, quirky, determined, and a friend to ALL critters. His observations of clues and his brilliant reasoning make him, quite possibly, one of the world’s most talented nature detectives. Jack’s understanding of the world comes from his own experiences. He is five years old, and his investigative skills are top notch. If you were to stop by his house you might find the Nature Detective in the midst of an experiential study of squirrel movement, or determining the optimal shelter for his new pet grasshopper, named Grasshopper. Today, we will share a mystery that Jack uncovered in the Okanogan Highlands. What clues can you uncover in the story?
One day in October, Jack, the Nature Detective, is out on a hike in the Okanogan Highlands with his family. The needles of the Western Larch are lighting up the flank of Bonaparte Mountain with yellow, bright against the dark green of the other conifers. The afternoon is warm and Jack’s whole family is enjoying the way the sunbeams filter down through the forest canopy.
Suddenly, Jack detects something. His eyes open wide and he whispers, “Who’s out there? Mom? Is someone watching us?” Everyone stops and looks around, no one is there, just the quiet forest. But the whole family kind of feels like there is something there, so they come to a full stop and really look around. There is a fallen tree, leaning steeply against its neighbor. The trees are tall in this place - and big around. Some have broken off way up in the air. But no one sees any sign of eyes watching them.
Jack’s mom says, “Don’t worry, Jack. Sometimes when you are outside, it really feels like something is watching you. Maybe animals are watching. The creatures that live in these woods are adapted to be camouflaged here. The shapes of their bodies and their colors blend right into the shapes and colors of the forest. They stay very still, so our eyes just slide right past them without even seeing them. Their camouflage keeps them safe.” Just a little way farther on, Jack stops again, staring at small gray lumps that look a bit furry, and a little bit...bony. What is this? Does it have something to do with that creepy feeling of being watched?
This is a nature mystery and, fortunately, the Nature Detective is on the job. He pulls out his sample jars, some forceps, and a hand lens, and collects the gray lumps for analysis at home.
Back at home, Jack dons his lab coat, goggles, and protective gloves and examines the gray lumps. He uses the forceps to pull out a pile of tiny bones. He painstakingly counts the bones and declares that this is undoubtedly the droppings of a hungry rodent eater.
He considers his clues: forest habitat with big trees, snags, and leaning trees, a creature that eats rodents and lives in the Okanogan Highlands. He remembers that feeling of being watched. Jack’s hypothesis is that this nature mystery is an owl, but it could be a coyote, weasel, or snake, and he is not quite willing to dismiss the possibility that it could be a baby velociraptor or a saber tooth tiger. Do you think Jack’s owl hypothesis is correct? What other evidence would you need to verify Jack’s forest find? To learn more, check out this episode of Highland Wonders, produced by Okanogan Highlands Alliance. Great Gray Owls: The Phantom of the North, features Matt Marsh, wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service in Tonasket.
Stay tuned for more nature mysteries and more episodes of the Highland Wonders Podcast! And don't forget to check out our website at okanoganhighlands.org.