by Shawna Lee
After many hours of rain, North Creek was overflowing its banks again, although it was not as high as it was a few weeks ago. Bob and I walked down to the creek edge this morning to see it. The power of that much water always feels exciting, and it’s fun to see how the bigger volume of flowing water has changed and shifted the contours of the banks and stream bed, not to mention loose objects beside the creek like the logs of the fire pit.
A cute little American Dipper was bobbing up and down at the flooded edge of the creek. It is such a soft gray and blends so well into the background of gray water that I didn’t see it until I had gotten fairly close to it. I stayed still and with no alarm, it continued to bob and poke into the shallow water for aquatic insects, their larvae, and maybe even tiny fish.
Also known as Water Ouzels, these little birds have an extra eyelid, a nictitating membrane, that protects their eyes and allows them to see underwater. Scales close their nostrils when they submerge their heads. They produce more oil than other birds which helps keep water from touching their skin, keeping them warmer. Water Ouzels were John Muir’s favorite bird. He devoted a whole chapter to the American Dipper in his book, The Mountains of California (1894). A sample of his beautiful writing about this unassuming and lovely little bird.
He is a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow, about the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish gray, with a tinge of chocolate on the head and shoulders. In form he is about as smoothly plump and compact as a pebble that has been whirled in a pot-hole, the flowing contour of his body being interrupted only by his strong feet and bill, the crisp wing-tips, and the up-slanted wren-like tail.
Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream, and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company.
He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, —none so unfailingly. 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. While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent.
Snowberry bushes that we planted a couple of summers ago as part of a hedgerow are loaded with luminous white berries, so heavy that the branches arch gracefully under their load. They are native shrubs that provide habitat and food for a variety of fauna, large and small.
Carpeting the ground around our hedgerow plants are rusty red/brown leaves from nearby bigleaf maple trees (Acer macrophyllum). This Pacific Northwest native has the biggest leaves of any maple in the world. In the spring, it’s large pendulous blossoms emerge before the leaves and attract lots of pollinators.
For one of our meetings, Tom harvested some of the blossom clusters, breaded and fried them for us to sample. Quite yummy they were, too. Apparently, bigleaf maple sap has similar sugar content to the East Coast’s famous sugar maples, although the flavor is different. Maybe this spring I’ll tap a tree or two and try my hand at making a little syrup.
Looking downstream. On the left is a canoe that washed down the creek during the last flood in October and got caught on a snag in the creek. Eric and Tom unstuck it and brought it up on shore.
Looking downstream. Just beyond the tree that is inexorably becoming more and more horizontal, the creek splits and creates an island in the middle.
The light was lovely this morning. Mostly cloudy with eastern sun filtering through clouds, the grasses seemed to glow. In our northern latitude, winter sunlight has the quality of what’s known in photography as the golden hour, all day long. (Seattle, at 47.6 degrees latitude, is the northernmost US city of more than 500,000 people in the lower 48 states, farther north even than Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal in Canada.)