by Rex Burress


Why do people watch birds? At least, there are some who find fascination in studying the antics of Avian actors, and a few follow bird movements with a passion, alias Audubon Listers and Listening Specialists who know the various songs songbirds sing!

Then there are the "...Haply some idle dreamers, like me, who wander and muse and gaze on thee," as William Cullen Bryant wrote. Wandering through the June meadows is a time to gaze on resident birds coping with the traumas of the nesting season.

I have found a few of the well-hidden nests in Blue Oak Meadow, and just about every day I wander through to check on the Mourning Dove sitting on her nest. Or is he taking a turn? The plumage reveals little of male or female. I pass quickly, and the wide-open eyes and alert head of the dove poised on the flimsy nest indicate a quick flight if I intruded.

I stopped and looked back at that single bird sitting on a nest waiting for the eggs to hatch. How would it be to be so alone on a nest in the wild acres day after day for most of a month? ("...His mate feels the eggs beneath her wings, and the heart in her dumb breast flutters and sings..." Bryant) On the ground ten feet below a fox or cat might pose a danger, or a woodland hawk might spot the nest and swoop for a kill. It is a matter of life or death day after day in an environment where things eat things.

What wonderful forces direct that bird to sit there on snow-white eggs that are apparently lifeless, yet with a developing life ticking inside! "They know without knowing they know," John Burroughs said, and a prime directive guides instinctive actions to insure progression of the species.

Another nest in the meadow has me puzzled. Placed in a shrubby blue oak, I thought the stick nest belonged to a pair of mockingbirds I had seen there, but then on another morning a female Phainopepla fussed about the site. Then later, I saw a House Finch singing on that small tree! Until I see somebody sitting on the nest, the mystery remains.

The brief glimpses of wild birds we see as we pass over the trail are but a meager sample of their lives. A few minutes in the daylight hours are but a peek into the vaults of nature where interactions take place 24 hours a day. Those birds of the day can be imperiled by the prowlers of the night, and no perch, no matter how well hidden, can be absolutely safe. The little piles of feathers on the trail are indications that an owl or other predator had a meal during the night. In the daytime, the swift bolt of hawk or falcon can end a life. No wonder birds nervously twitch their heads and fly restlessly from place to place.

Some of those bird mysteries can be solved. On the Feather River below the Fish Barrier Falls, I had watched a pair of mergansers swimming in the span. I suspected a nest beneath the falls, as I had seen the female dive out of sight. Then one day I saw them swimming down stream and I was certain a baby was riding on the hen's back where a fluff of feathers was disturbed. I have seen baby grebes riding on their mother's back, and swans commonly use that mode of transportation. When whistling or Tundra Swans lived at the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge in Oakland, the cygnets often burrowed into the parent's back feathers, sheltered like a fan, and cozy warm, for a ride around the lake.

However, later with binoculars, I discovered the hen merganser was a wing cripple and the tuff of feathers was deformed tissue. I had been fooled, just like you can be deceived by a clump of vegetation in the tree tops that looks like an animal.

Then I understood why the male would fly off to fish leaving the hen on a rock. She couldn't fly! So he touchingly stayed behind with his chosen mate while other mergansers migrated away to summer nesting places, and maybe she was too injured to nest normally. In his handsome plumage, he could have sailed away to woo a healthy hen in some romantic place. The never-ending story continues!

In the river habitat where the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-rumped Warblers held sway during the winter, Cliff Swallows swoop over the water and tend their mud nests plastered beneath the Table Mountain bridge. Tree Swallows mix in the medley and glean the shorelines of flying insects. During a cold spell that descended during the first of May, the insects had been grounded, with only a few gnat-like flies on the wing. Swallows had skimmed the shoreline shrubs by the hundreds, trying desperately to secure a meal. If the cold had lingered, disaster would have inflicted the bird world with death, in a nature that bends in and out with the forces of earth. There is little visible compassion but an allowance that allows recovery and continuation of life.

Nature is ever at work building up and pulling down,
creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling
and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion,
chasing everything in endless song
out of one beautiful form into another.
            --John Muir

 © 1999 Rex Burress
June l6, l999