Birds of the Wind

by Rex Burress

A furious storm struck the Feather River region in late February as high winds howled over the landscape and rain pelted the earth. Nevertheless, I was down by the riverside walking along the protective levee just to experience the exultation of the furious gale roaring over the rim, thrashing the eucalyptus limbs with a whipping force, and sending most sane birds into cover.

One lone Herring Gull, however, was dashing into the sky and gliding on the turbulent air currents over and over, as if it were enjoying the challenge something like ocean surfers riding the waves over and over. High, high, up into the sky, and then a breathtaking dive down. There were no other gulls around. Nearly all of the thousands that had followed the salmon on the fall run had returned to the oceanside after their dead fish clean-up, and I mused about that lone bird showing its skills to only the egret and heron standing forlorn in the buffeting winds.

The wading birds were frustrated in fishing, merely trying to stand upright in waters that were whipped into waves making underwater fish detection difficult. The Great Blue Heron did feel uncomfortable with me looking at it and flew, or was tossed, to the shallows where the white egret was standing as if to check out a better place to stand. There was a brief flash of sabers, perhaps enacted from edgy nerves, until they were joined by a lone male Mallard. It was a comical combination and they seemed to be watching that gull perform its aerial mastery.

The Osprey didn’t budge from its cottonwood perch where normally it would have fled at my approach. Most sky birds were out of business, and I wondered where the Red-tailed Hawk and vulture were grounded. The thicket birds along the protected riverside were most unaffected by the storm, and I could see sparrows and warblers feeding low in the tangles. A goldfinch tried to perch in the eucalyptus but was tossed aside, fluttering like a leaf to the shrubs. It is a perilous moment for the songbird, not only from the danger of flying debris, but danger from a cat or other predator that might be waiting for that opportune moment of distraction.

I have seen gulls flying in storms before, especially over Lake Merritt where I worked at the Wildlife Refuge. When the unsettled air currents of an approaching storm would form, gulls nearly always went wheeling around and around high into the sky as if savoring the smells of far away places. I suppose if I had wings and that marvelous ability to fly, that I, too, would be up there in high-flung ecstasy testing my powers against the elements.

Be like the bird which on frail branches balanced
A moment sits and sings;
He feels them tremble, but he sings unshaken,
Knowing that he has wings.
–Victor Hugo

When I returned home after my foray into The Force of the Wild, I saw a large number of birds that had taken refuge in Jo’s Garden. The sheltered seed feeder was being utilized by a troop of White-crowned Sparrows while several feisty Anna’s Hummingbirds were fussing around the sugar water. House Finches, true to their name, were flocking to the cover of the patio niches, lined up on a hanging ladder as if they had found paradise from the storm. We are all too happy to share our dwelling with wild things, even though I pelt the adventuresome cat seeking an easy meal in the refuge. We can expect some kind of fly in the ointment since there is little perfection in human society or the out of doors.

When I saw the gull flying in the wind, I thought of a super-glider I once experienced at Oakland’s Lake Merritt Sanctuary. A pair of Laysan’s Albatross had been stranded in the city, evidently blown off course by a winter storm. The albatross is the king of the air, flying and gliding for hours over the ocean waters, and usually going to shore only when nesting on Pacific Islands.

The amicable birds were receptive of fish handouts for several days, lifting their heads and clacking beaks as if to say thank you. The Rotary Nature Center staff was actually sorry to see them go, but the day came when we arranged with the coast guard to help us take them back to the sea. I was the courier and lifted the birds to the sea and tossed them windward. It was amazing to see them lock those long wings into position and simply glide away out of sight under the Golden Gate Bridge. Amazing, too, was the reappearance of those birds back at the refuge a few days later, returning as if after another meal! This time we put them on the Matson ocean ship for release out by Hawaii!

Those turbulent wind storms not only energize the tortured trees and lift the birds to new heights, they can be an uplifting experience for the human hiker. John Muir had a special affinity with wind and storms, one time climbing into a pine tree near Brownsville, California, just to experience what the tree was subjected to during such stress. He found it exhilarating just as he exclaimed about "a noble earthquake" that once rattled Yosemite Valley!

While most people quail inside their feeble abodes hoping the roof holds, there are some people, and birds, out there in the full fury of the restless atmosphere enduring the rigors of climatic extremes. Hunters, and even fishermen, sometimes confront inclement weather to pursue their sport. Fly fishermen are usually not deterred by wind or storm, patiently placing their best laid schemes before the wary trout. "Storms Never Last..." in the words of the country poet.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings!
Nature’s peace will flow into you like sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy,
And cares will fall away like autumn leaves.
–John Muir

© 2004 Rex Burress
February 26, 2004