Nature up close and personal

Longtime Whidbey explorer shares wildlife experiences

Whidbey Islander Steven Ellis was once in the lonely, silent Alaskan wilderness, crossing a river, when he caught the attention of a grizzly bear. As Ellis stood firmly on the gravel bar in the center of the stream, the bear charged.

The brute moved in leaps, puffed up and menacing, large splashes disrupting the current, head and ears facing Ellis, who froze.

He was about to fall dead, though he wasn’t sure how effective it would be, when something changed. The bear stopped.

“I was just getting ready to drop down and curl up in a ball and let him do to me what he wanted to, but then he clacked his jaws a few times and walked away,” he said.

It was a bluff. Ellis shuffled around the river’s bend and “ran like crazy.”

While the overwhelming majority are peaceful, Ellis has countless wildlife encounters like this. Formerly an employee of the Coupeville School District, Ellis leads field trips and gives nature walks with the Whidbey Audubon Society with his wife, Martha. He also volunteers with the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, upkeeping their Nature Watch blog.

His love of the natural world came from growing up in Anchorage, he said, where he fished every waking moment he could. He was quick to realize there was so much more to see than fish.

Now, he has a different strategy. He doesn’t hunt or fish and rarely interacts at all. He’s a fly on the wall, seeking out the colors and shapes that stand out on the landscape, to take witness in something that few will have the chance to.

In 2016, Ellis took on a big year, a term among birders meaning to collect as many sightings as possible. Instead of birds, Ellis did this with mammals. His result: 74 species in four states.

Once, he saw a long-tailed weasel outside of Oak Harbor. He crouched down onto his belly, and it popped out of the ground with a bird in its mouth just inches away from him. They stared at each other for a moment before it scampered off.

This is good practice, he said, to view the world from the animals’ perspective. Some, like shrews, give the honor of allowing him into their world to see what they do.

River otters rank highly, he said, because “they’re so full of life.”

Of course, seals, gray whales and orcas are always special, he said. While looking for them, he often sees eagles and other birds as well.

Ellis starts in the morning with a pair of binoculars. A spotting scope is even better, but not required. Having some kind of optics is important so he can see what the animals do in their natural environment, uninterrupted, from a distance.

Another great tip may seem obvious, but he finds it’s worth repeating: turn off the phone and take out ear buds, he said. Don’t eliminate the two best senses.

It’s difficult to truly be a passive observer, as for much of wildlife, their lives depend on knowing their surroundings, he said. But trying to blend in, staying quiet and moving slowly, the animals will typically go on as if he is not there.

“I like to see what they’re up to. I like to see how they fit in their environment, what they eat and what eats them and that kind of thing,” he said.

After that, it’s about time and repetition, he said. The person who sees the most is the person who explores the most.

Taking one of his field trips with the Audubon Society is a great way to start, he said. All the guides have a ton of experience in the area and can point things out to beginners. He also suggests people sign up with Orcanet, which provides text alerts for whale sightings.

A lot of success comes from familiarity and pattern recognition, he said. Last week, he spotted a couple of young great horned owls at Fort Casey State Park. His first clue was just an unusual lump high up in a grand fir tree.

Part of the fun is in guiding, he said. Even if he’s seen something hundreds of times, showing other people can bring back the feelings he had the first time he saw it.

Also, the cast of animals changes throughout the year, he said, so a lot of times he’s out looking for “old friends.”

“Like, ‘Oh, good, the Townsend’s warblers are back,’” he said.

Ellis has been exploring Whidbey for almost four decades. In that time, the number of birds, especially the swallows and warblers, have dropped dramatically, he said.

California wildfires trap migrant birds in hundreds of miles of smoke, and a lot of them don’t make it out.

There’s a bit of honor in being the last generation to see an abundant animal, Ellis said, but he would prefer if future generations could share the experience he had.

It’s important to support the land trust and other organizations to protect the land, he said. They need habitat.

“We teach bird classes, but these birds and mammals and things, they’re not just pretty pictures in a book,” he said. “They live their lives out there, and they need the same things we need. They need food, water, shelter and a place to raise their young, and we need to give them a chance.”

On the flipside, bald eagle numbers have skyrocketed, he said.

“When I first got here, I guess it was 1988, you would call somebody if you saw an eagle,” he said, “and now we got all the island can carry because they fight over territory.”

It’s not just birds that have changed during that time, he said. People have too.

When Ellis was young, nobody thought twice about the environment, he said. Now, the average person understands its importance.

He chalks this up to a number of reasons: research, publicity and attitudes generally changing with passing generations.

“We’re not dumping toxic waste,” he said. “Some people would be appalled to even think about that, whereas 40 years ago they would do it without even thinking, because there’s always another stream.”

Cultural consciousness has shifted, he said. People know now that if they want salmon, they need to understand the lifecycle and protect the habitats fostering each stage.

The wild carries endless rewards, he said.

“I just love being out,” he said. “Whether it’s something that I’ve seen 1,000 times or only once in my life, I just get a thrill out of it.”

Steven Ellis guides a field trip for the Audubon Society in South Whidbey. (Photo provided)

Steven Ellis guides a field trip for the Audubon Society in South Whidbey. (Photo provided)