A Bird in the Hand

The English say “A bird is the hand is worth two in the bush,” the Germans: “Der Spatz in der Hand ist besser als die Taube auf dem Dach. (The sparrow in the hand is better than the dove on the roof.) I ask, “What about the bird on my shoulder?”

With glacier blue washed in its first white robe of this season’s snow, alders, leafless, standing bare and vulnerable before coming cold, with most of the bears fattened and retreating to mountain crevices, salmon spent and no longer gasping for breath, and ice creeping from the margins of creek and lake, one little bird remains unflinching, and unmoved. She does not molt to a winter plumage, and she is still singing her flutelike song.

For only an instant I detect it, through wool sweater and rain jacket, the faint pressure of two avian ounces. I cannot say what one of those ounces might be worth in my hand, but on my shoulder, two avian ounces is all it takes to trigger adrenaline. Two feathered ounces.

It is late October, and enough hours of sunlight remain in a single turn of Earth for twenty-four hours to feel almost like a day in Southeast Alaska. One last, lone bear sniffing up and down steep creek hoping for a salmon grants a momentary illusion of summer, but the lack of tour busses stacked, and packed with cruise ship visitors, clearly signals that autumn has reached this little corner of Tongas National Forest.

No rain falls today, and the quiet around the Mendenhall Visitor Center area is a welcome respite for the handful of local photographers accustomed to being overrun by tourists vying for the best view of one more bear. Over the summer more than a half million people visit here, and they all want to see two things: glacier and bear.

I understand their excitement, their hope. Glaciers and bears are not easily tired of, but for all the power, wonder and potential of this dynamic duo, there is a much smaller sight to behold here—one that thrills me every time I see it. It weighs just two ounces, and this morning it lit upon my shoulder.

To the casual tourist or bear watcher, the tubby little little gray songbird is easily overlooked. She does nothing to announce her presence, flying low, following the stream, landing in the shadows. She is not rare, does not wield talon or venom, yet since I first encountered this starling-sized bird bobbing, diving, swimming, and rafting the currents of Bright Angel Creek, in Grand Canyon twenty-five years ago, she has been a primary object of my affection anytime I’ve had the opportunity to visit her haunts.

On this quiet morning, we crouch streamside as a pair of birds, twenty feet from shore, perch on beaver-chewed sticks, dive in the pond, surface, perch again, and repeat.
They work their way towards us for a few feet, then separate, one of them hunting her way downstream past us and ever closer to the bank. My attention stays with her, as Rachel, my bird-watching partner for the morning, stays fixed on the other one, still foraging along the dam.

When the southbound bird floats out of sight behind a large boulder, I race downstream to wait, stopping six feet from the bank, turning to face upstream, and holding my breath in anticipation.

Small, radiating ripples, revealing from behind the rock, tell me she is nearing my field of vision. I plant my elbows on my torso to brace my camera, and train my lens on the tip of the rock, but she does not float by. Instead, she flies back into sight, landing on a small stump, ten feet in front of me.

I take a couple photos as she hops into the water, then back on the stump. I can see horizon line, sky, and a tree trunk reflecting in her soft brown eye. Pink legs appear almost translucent. Robin-like yellow beak is at the ready.

John Muir described the bird he called “water ouzel” as “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.” I cannot do better than that. Muir went on to say of this delightful little bird, “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.” I would only add to his simile: “…as I love dippers!”

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Soon, the days will become noticeably shorter, the light snow on the glacier will find its way to the valley, and the thin ice on the margins of the stream will close in anywhere there is not enough current to keep it at bay. I look forward to that transformation when dippers’ hunting grounds will be limited to those open portals.

I have watched this pair all summer, seen them feast on salmon eggs and fry, caddisfly, dragonfly, and who-knows-what-other aquatic insect larvae they find beneath the surface, out of my sight.

Using sharp wings to fly through the clear, cold water, they use strong beaks to turn over rocks, revealing so many delicacies. On shore, they dip down and back up, down and back up, on slender pink legs, their stubby, wren-like tail stands at attention all the while, frequently uttering short, thin “zeets,” perhaps to a mate. Some pairs will stay together throughout the winter, others will separate. Either way, their flute-like songs can be heard around the stream year round.

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I am trying not move, barely breathing, keeping my arms locked in place, lens trained, my thumb on the focus button. She dips. She dips. She turns toward me. She flies. Straight toward my camera lens.

So focused on remaining still, I fail to keep focused on the bird, and will find later that the two shots I take as she flies toward me leave her blurred in front of a sharply focused stump behind. She is quickly out of my sight, presumably flying over my shoulder, and across the road, when I feel her weight on my shoulder. Two ounces.

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Neither of us say a word, but I suspect we are thinking similar things. Me: Holy shit she just landed on me! Her: Holy shit, I just landed on him!

No sooner has she landed, she is back on the wing, back to the pond, distancing herself from me. However matched our internal dialog might be, clearly our feelings are not in the same emotional galaxy, and though this comes to me as no surprise, it comes with grave disappointment.

There is no way for her to understand how much of a friend I am, how nonexistent any threat is on my shoulder. If I thought it would make a difference, I would return to the stream with a handful of grubs and sit just as still, hand outstretched as I do when offering sunflower seeds to the chickadees who so quickly accept my gifts, and even, at times, land on my shoulder to suggest I fetch them a snack from the kitchen.

I ponder this prospect. Perhaps I will return with salmon eggs, I think, but the thought does not linger. My love for dippers comes from their behavior, their wildness. As much as I enjoy every chickadee who lands on my shoulder or takes a seed from my palm, it will never produce the excitement I felt the time a dipper mistook me for a stump, or a rock, and, for a moment, perched on my shoulder.

That moment is unlikely to ever be repeated, but as long as she remains wild, there is still the possibility, if I am still enough, patient enough, present enough, it might happen again, not because one or both of us is trained, but because in that moment, in her eyes, I am but a sump. In that moment, am part of the landscape. In that moment, to her, I do not exist, and to me, she is all that exists. The hope for that moment, that one bird alighting on a stump, those two ounces perching on my shoulder—is worth more than all the chickadees in Alaska eating out of my hand.

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