Creature Contrast

by Rex Burress

Down by the riverside on the last day of 2001, I was amused by the curious behavior of feeding birds. A fish breakfast was on the mind of the Great Egret as it stalked the shallows. How would you like to depend on a long sharp nose and a snake-like neck to use for fishing? No hands! Just rivet your gaze on the weedy water's edge, take big slow steps, and ease your beak-nose close to the surface, and then, stab! If you calculated right, presto, a one-inch minnow!

The tall white bird was having success catching those tiny fish that seemed so insignificant to such a large hunter. How many would it take to satisfy the demands of its biological system? When you eat only what you can gather, there may be some lean days. Then a Snowy Egret noticed the shiny fish being caught and came hurriedly to the hole - much like competing human fishermen - to get in on the action!

There isn't much that escapes the eyes of the wild. All those vultures perched along the river, the Osprey in the tree, the gulls in the rapids - they all alertly watch every movement along the shore.

True to its nature, the Snowy Egret had to gingerly wade into the water and shake its bright yellow feet. That is the way it is designed and the habit is uncontrollable. Take a step, watch, shake the foot, watch, try to distract the fish - stab!

Then two other fisher birds saw the success, and, they too, came surging to the scene. Common Mergansers, the male vividly marked in its breeding plumage and the lady displaying her swept-back hair design. They shot through the current like buoyant boats, eager to reach a hot spot. The mergansers "snorkel" by swimming with their heads under water, snagging fish with that sharp curved-tip beak in the shallows and deftly diving in the deeper water. There they were - three different bird species feeding in three different ways ... a contrast of life styles.

I lifted my gaze from that fascinating scene at the water's edge to the leafless cottonwood overhead, and dancing through the branches were a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers, darting out from the tree to snatch some type of insect activated by the warm day. Closer to the branch was a Nuttall's Woodpecker, crouching close to the branch as it worked on excavating some morsel from the tree. Only its head moved as it clung tightly to the woody precipice, so in contrast to the constantly active warblers and kinglets. Some birds are slow motion and others are hyperactive bundles of energy. Expert birders know them by their movement, an observation method called the "zizz" of birding.

You see what you watch for. Near the observation platform, a colony of feral cats attract a certain group of ladies who bring cat food each day. They see only the cats in their river pursuit, delighting in the friendly camaraderie, and the felines also notice the compassionate gestures, quickly separating the feeders from the rock throwers. It only took one thrown rock at a cat stalking a Western Scrub-Jay to brand me as "enemy," and they fled at my approach. Cat watchers watch for cats and bird watchers watch for birds. The contrast is evident.

As a bona fide bird watcher, I was delighted to see an American Dipper splashing in the shallows along the rocky peninsula! It was the first one I had ever seen along the lower stretch of the Feather River, far away from its waterfall home in the higher mountains, although they frequent the 3,000-foot rapids along Yellow Creek near Belden, and Spanish Creek near Oakland Camp. The gray bird is like no other, fluttering from stone to stone, and then sinking into the water to feed on the bottom. They often come up singing, and it was John Muir's favorite bird, a subject of his first published nature article he entitled "The Hummingbird of the California Waterfalls," a bird he called the ouzel or water thrush.

I wondered how that clumsy bird with its laborious flying style got over Oroville Dam. Was it a lone explorer venturing beyond its normal haunts to see the world? We know very little of a bird's thoughts and what promotes it to fly forth into new surroundings, a feat that often culminates in a journey of thousands of miles. No baggage, no security checks, no hotel reservations - just fly forth and feed on opportune offerings.

The sight of that dipper brought back memories of summer experiences around Oakland Camp on Spanish Creek. It was so delightful to steal away to the stream side and pause at the Covel Overlook to watch the dippers feeding around one of their favorite perching rocks. You could depend on it. They like fast water and waterfalls. The world might swirl around you, planes fly into buildings, bombs fall in a faraway country, but the dipper would be there sitting on its stone and singing its song. That kind of stability is so important in a world of insecurity. Nature, and its cast of contrasting characters, is very refreshing, and the dependability of wildlife habits is something you can expect to see whenever you commune with her visible forms.

John Muir said of the dipper: "Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely this humming-bird of blooming waters. For both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells.... Throughout the whole of their beautiful lives they interpret all that we in our unbelief call terrible in the utterances of torrents and storms, as only varied expressions of God's eternal love."

© 2001 Rex Burress
December 31, 2001