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The Owls of I.C.U.”


It was the most exciting fall season I’d ever had birding Santa Barbara County!  More new birds in the past months than I’d ever notched before.  Jump into the car, zoom off, one new bird after another in remote areas, new identification challenges that I’d never really thought through before, dropping whatever I was doing:   all for the pursuit of the birds I love to add to my Santa Barbara County list.

I’ve been birding here all my life.  I love this part of the Central Coast, my birding friends, all the familiar birding spots that I’ve discovered over the years. After each bird pursuit I would text my husband, Gib, who’s not a birder, so he knew whether to expect a friendly, chatty wife or a mean, grumpy one, slamming the dishes into the dishwasher muttering, “If ONLY, I’d stayed down in the mud, instead of running back up into the willows, I’d have seen the bird .”

So it had been a glorious time of first county records, some difficult chases.  Some wondrous sightings.

I had ‘godwit luck’ when Brad Hines found the Bar-tailed Godwit out at Ocean Beach in September.  This shorebird is one of those long- distant migrants that flies annually to spend the winter in New Zealand, travelling non-stop all the way from Alaska in SIX days across the Pacific.   I was able to see this Bar-tailed Godwit for all of five minutes, before it left high in the sky to resume its journey south.  BUT I SAW IT!

Offshore of Santa Barbara and Ventura, the warm waters had brought the boobies:  those ungainly southern sillies with the long bills and the power wings for fish diving.  I was on the pelagic voyages, & calling out when the bird flew over “Red-footed Booby!” Of course somebody else had spotted it first, but there it was flying right above me as I stood on deck!  This ungainly booby with the pale lavender bill extended, and its red fleshy feet dangling beneath a sleek body.

Love it!  Gotta have it!

But perhaps the most beautiful bird of the fall was the Blue-winged Warbler at Carpinteria Creek.  This tiny bird with bright yellow body & pale gray wings was another first for our area, and Nick Lethaby was waiting for it when it dropped into the creek bed to avoid a southern storm. He put the word out.  What looks we had, and what oohs and aaahs at the foreign visitor here, just calmly feeding on tiny insects as it flitted from tree to tree.  What’s this warbler doing a thousand miles away from Sweet Home Alabama?

One bird that everyone but Wes Fritz missed was an absolute out-of-place Varied Bunting; Wes was with clients at Gaviota State Beach & he took a photo of this brownish, totally uninteresting looking bird feeding on the grass.  Turned out it was a Varied Bunting — another first county record — but nobody got to see it.  It was gone in a second, that bunting.

After a rare bird is found, there’s an effect that used to be called the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect:  it originated in a place in Southeastern Arizona where there was a picnic table, & birders would stop there looking for a target bird, like a Rose-throated Becard.  And they’d either see the Becard or not, but they’d always be on the lookout for other rare birds, and that’s how even MORE interesting birds had been located……just because birders were now taking the time to look around & seek out what else might be at that location.

And so it was at Gaviota State Beach the next day, when I drove up with my friend, Carol Goodell.  We didn’t see the Varied Bunting, but there were other interesting birds being spotted.  So Carol & I wandered the place and we saw some nice species & we had fun chatting with other birders.  That date was November 4, and it’s the last day I felt normal.


Since next week was my birthday, I’d overbooked, not wanting a spare moment.  Yes, I felt a little shortness of breath, which wasn’t my typical asthma, but I didn’t have time to check it out properly.  Gib and I drove to my sister’s ranch in the Cuyama Valley, where we had peace and silence and a chance to look at birds.

I was still feeling punk, — not able to hike up a hill– but what was I to do?  It wasn’t that bad, & I seemed to be able to sleep at night if I took my inhalers.  I was lazy;  I wanted to have fun… I was not listening to what my body was telling me.

We were home Friday night.  By then, I knew I had to take action.  Called my doctor on Monday, had a CT scan of my lungs done.  Bad stuff going on in there.  Alas, more days of waiting to see a pulmonologist, who gave me an oxygen tank as a good-bye present.  And that was when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to breathe without oxygen for….who knew…..maybe forever?  I had never relied on oxygen before during any part of my life.  This was absolutely sobering.  And I was panting, panting, always out of breath.  I could feel how my anxiety made it worse

That night, we called 911 because my oxygen tank ran out and the new supplies were late. I was sure I’d pass out on the kitchen floor.

The wonderful first responders did their thing, I could breathe at last, and I was safely delivered to Cottage Hospital.

In my current case, in hopes of not invading my body with prednisone & ruining a possibly good future biopsy, the doctors wanted to wait until Monday.  But by then, I was too sick to survive a lung biopsy, and there was no alternative but to flood my system with masses of the anti-inflammatory drug, prednisone.  Prednisone is a wonder drug.  The side effects– insomnia being the worst–were the special hell I had to go through for the first 5 nights as I lay in the medical Intensive Care Units at Cottage.

Don’t get me wrong:  if you are as sick as I was, you want to be where I was.

I love the feeling among the nurses and staff at ICU — they want to come to work every day, & they are thrilled to have such an important job, to watch people get better.  They kept talking about people being cured and walking out.  Are you kidding?  I was being bombarded by 40 liters of oxygen coming out of this giant tube night and day.  How would I ever live a normal life again?

Was this thing I had  — this interstitial pneumonitis—going to let me live, or die, go forward with restraints, never go birding again?  I was afraid to open all the masses of cards I got.  Would it be a bad omen for the next day?  I saved all of the cards, letters, e-mails, and messages;  it was too soon to read them.  I couldn’t bear it.  I cried every time Gib brought me a briefcase full of messages from all my friends.  If I couldn’t survive this, I would be letting every one of them down.


Eventually,  they took me upstairs to the Medical Intensive Care Unit.

This is where people with serious pulmonary diseases stay.  There are doctors making rounds, medical students doing their residencies. Each ICU room contains the most advanced system of I.V. delivery tubes, respirators, valves, suction monitors, modern pain alleviators, available anywhere in the world. Cardiac, pulmonary, gastro—they’ve got you covered, any kind of critical care.

The first thing I noticed were the  sounds.   Like most birders, I am sensitive to noise, and I still have keen hearing.

Above my bed,  a computer screen showed a series of horizontal fluorescent yellow, green, white, and blue fluctuating lines moving across a graph: high loops and low ones.  For example, when I talked, my white line graph went up & down twice as fast.  That’s measured by those sticky things on my body that record heart rate.  And every hour a blood pressure cuff on your arm inflates automatically; it hurts, but that’s part of I.C.U. protocol.

However, the line everyone was most interested in was the blue line:  it tells the level of oxygen in your blood.  I needed to stay above 92. After the slightest movement to reach something or to chat, the little oxygen sound became a full- blown alarm bell if the number fell below 92.

“Joan, you’re desatting too fast!”  The nurses came hurrying in.  “Stop and breathe through your nose & out through your mouth!” (Didn’t they know that I couldn’t begin to take a normal breath???)

I gasped.  I reached for air and there was none to be had, none that would penetrate the fistulas of disease that were winding in and around all of the openings in my lungs.  It was like somebody had put plastic wrap around my lungs and sealed it up tightly. Disease of some kind had filled the spaces and tissues, filled them with what?   some toxin we don’t know?  Nobody had answers.

They called it acute interstitial pneumonitis.  What an ugly lungful.

As I lay tossing and turning in the ICU, the beeps and pings and whistles drove me crazy.  I imagined I was in a weird state of nature.

It was man- made, but it contained reminders of a world outside of these walls where I used to wander and explore.  It’s where I was happiest — birding outside.  But since this world was no longer available to me, I created my own universe in the hospital room.

On the overhead monitor, each line emits its signal that registers to the nurse what your body is doing.   “Ping-ping-ping” is a friendly reassuring note, reminiscent of the staccato hoot of a Northern Saw-Whet Owl.

My favorite of all was the comforting chirp, the lilting upward swing of the note that said “All’s Well” with the oxygen in my blood—the blue line.

I was delighted to find it reminded me of the call of the Flammulated Owl.

Has anyone else noticed this?  I’m stunned. Here I am in the midst of this high-tech environment, and yet the sounds are similar to those I’ve heard from the forests, from all the field trips to our local mountains, from the owl watching nights waiting to catch those delicate calls of the  Flammulated Owl signaling to its mate on a calm June night.

“Zeee-oop?, zee-oop?, zee-oop”?.  Just the hint of an upward note at the end of each “oop”, that’s how the Flammulated Owl lets itself be known to others of its kind.  High in the White Firs and Jeffrey Pines of our local mountains, the Fammulated Owls call every spring to announce their arrival from Central America.  They are prepared to take a chance again on nesting in our region, but they are impossibly difficult to see.  Still, you have the sound, the miniature waltz, of a Flammulated Owl, if you are only there to hear it.

Now, as I lie listening in the hospital, I hear the call of this little owl coming from the monitor above my bed.  And I hope I’m going to be able to breathe better soon, that I will walk out of here a person who can still go birding……..and that one day it won’t be the computer sound of the Flammulated Owl, but the real owl itself that I hear singing to me in the whispering pines above my tent.

And if I can’t, I had better figure out that, too.  Because if you can find owls in I.C.U., it’s a good bet you will always have birding in your life no matter what.