Into the Wild

Three Birds That Follow Rivers


It is November. Gullies are soggy. The exact edges of creeks are hard to define. The last leaves are limp yellow rags that drag across my shoulders as I make my way downhill. Sometimes I get a wet slap in the face. This morning’s tramp is a miniature of the journey that several local birds have recently made.

Underfoot, the black-brown leaf litter is broken here and there by pale deer mushrooms and shed orange cedar foliage and logs ablaze with moss, the torch of colors having been passed from the big trees to their cast of peculiar earthbound associates. Crystal-clear creek water pools alongside roots.

I emerge at a rain-soaked beach. The rocks shine like they have been buffed.

The beach looks empty of life until I approach the water’s edge, where a clear thin whistle, tripled, rings out. A shorebird arcs away, flying a semicircle on stiff narrow wings that it holds so downcurved in flight that their tips occasionally tap the water. When it lands, it bobs its rear end up and down like a marionette.

That goofy bob is a good way to recognize a spotted sandpiper when you don’t have binoculars. They are smaller than killdeer and only stray from water’s edge in flight. With binoculars, you will be treated to a cement-gray bird with a white belly and dingy yellow legs and, hunched forward as if looking for a lost contact, a blunt bill for picking through beach rocks and seaweed.

It walks forward deliberately, instinctively bobbing whenever it pauses, a pint-sized chunk of feather and blood that has recently come downriver from the uplands. Spotted sandpipers breed along large rivers and lakeshores well up into the mountains. While many of Washington’s spotties migrate south, others do an elevational migration, following rivers to elevation zero at Puget Sound to spend a wet winter here. In fact, Christmas Bird Count records show that the South Sound is the likeliest part of Washington to find spotties in winter. Elsewhere they are fairly rare.

On summer breeding grounds, where spotted sandpipers sport black Yayoi Kusama dots on their chests, females run the show. They are polyandrous, meaning they mate with multiple males. Males build nests and do most of the incubation of eggs while females claim and guard territories. For a species that nests among the sparse grass of sandbars, where even with the best camouflage predation is high, this system is probably protective. Giving females the freedom to move about and feed gives them the ability to jump in and replace a nest if it is destroyed.

As I walk, the spotted sandpiper with its low arcing flights stays ahead of me. Finally, it flies far out over the bay, calling all the while, before circling back to the place I first flushed it. For a while I am alone. I aim for a cluster of rocks in the surf.

Halfway there I jump at a rush of stiff breeze behind me. No. Wind over dozens of wings.

A formation of ducks comes over my shoulder and banks and flaps hard and low up the shoreline, their thin heads and bills pointing urgently forward like arrows.

Common mergansers. Most are gray and brick red, females and juveniles. A few are white with dark green heads, males. These diving fish-eating ducks with serrated bills are another species that heads downriver in fall. They breed near forested lakes and the backwaters of rivers. As soon as their broods of up to 12 ducklings hatch they slip into the rivers, the babies floating like corks behind the mothers as they make their way toward saltwater. By the time they arrive, the ducklings are grown.

It is a sight to see a pack of mergansers dive into a ball of bait fish. They run across the water’s surface with heads low like speedboats and when they hit the action they carry their momentum underwater with bubbles streaming off their bodies.

Now that I’ve seen two elevational migrants, I wonder if I might see a third. But no varied thrushes or golden-crowned kinglets appear in the trees along the shoreline. It is not until I reach the rocks in the surf that my pulse quickens.

Two ducks stand silhouetted upon the rocks. Their portly bodies and perfect posture give them the look of butlers ready to assist. But I am not yet close when they slip into the water and keep their distance. Harlequin ducks.

The male harlequin duck looks sculpted and painted, made of stone rather than feathers. It is a species quite uncommon in the South Sound. Seeing them is special. It feels like they appear when conditions are borderline too raw for me, when a gale flings spray or the beach fractures and becomes impassable. They are birds of elemental forces. They breed on roaring mountain rivers, where they pass unscathed through rapids that would chew up a kayak. Our wintering birds come from mountains across the West: Banff, Glacier, Grand Teton, the Olympics.

Buoyant, elusive, wild, they remind me of the words poet Gary Snyder found on a Chinese painted scroll of winding mountain pathways and rivers: “The water holds up the mountains, the mountains go down in water.”

Around the harlequin ducks, rocks bob in the surf. Hillsides duck through sprays of falling water. Along with spotted sandpipers and common mergansers, harlequin ducks move like the water cycle, rising again and again into the uplands only to follow the rivers back down. Maybe they move like the rock cycle too, mountains climbing over mountains, ridges moving like waves, making homes for birds.