Saturday, October 23, 2010

Pools of Water

Umpqua National Forest, Oregon: October 2010

Warm Indian summer sun. Quiet campground. We found a very leaky faucet amongst the tall lodgepoles . A shallow pool, not much larger than a throw rug, has become a magnet for thirsty birds in this dry habitat. From the car Dale photographed birds for about twenty minutes. The birds finished drinking and bathing and left … so Dale left too. Now I’m sitting on the ground with my back to a not-quite-wide-enough lodgepole. I picked this one so I could sketch a wonderful old snag. I hardly get started sketching when first one bird and then another joins me. Soon sketching is forgotten.

Juncos talk softly as they flutter in. Bathing is on the agenda. A female junco starts with a head dip, followed by a wild spray of water. It is like hitting the little pool with an electric eggbeater set on high. The egg beater turns off and she looks around to make sure all is well. Then tips back to wet her tail, forward again for her head again. Such a scattering of water! She sprays her neighbors and ends up well soaked. It takes several pauses and several splashings for a good bath.

A pair of red-breasted nuthatches are more cautious, keeping their distance from these rambunctious juncos. They sip from the shallowest water off to my right, then return to their upside down posture on a nearby lodgepole. A small flock of twittering pine siskins land in my snag and check the pool before zipping down for their turn. They are nervous, high energy birds.

Oh my! I’ve even got three red crossbills. They are funny, chunky birds with what appears to be a malformed bill. But the bill is their livelihood. With it they can pry into cones that are inaccessible to other birds. The trio come down for a good drink, then sound like little bombers when they take off. I’m surprised a bird that size makes so much noise.

All this whirring of wings reminds me of one of my favorite experiences. Years ago we were told about Heppe Cave, a large collapsed lava tube in Lava Beds National Monument. Two portions of the roof had collapsed, leaving a dark cavern in between. A fellow camper told us how to enter the cave, follow a narrow path down, and wait in dark shadows. At the bottom of this cavern was a small pool of water, another magnet for thirsty birds in a dry environment.

Heppe Cave was dark and chilly, unlike this spot where I am now. It was even quieter. One drop of water seemed like an intrusion into the silence of the cave. After waiting several minutes the birds started to arrive, cautiously at first. Their eyes needed to adjust to the darkness, just as mine did. Each bird flitted from one rock to another as it made its way to the pool, drank quickly and left in one flight. Sometimes I had a dozen birds drinking at once. Mostly the birds were quiet. I remember vividly how the wings of each species whirred differently. Soon I was able to tell the soft flutter of a junco from the steady, heavy beat of a Clark’s nutcracker, from the crisp wing strokes of a noisy raven.

Back to the present. It is so quiet enough in this campground I can hear the bird’s take offs and arrivals, but here chittering and chipping mix in. It is obvious the birds feel more comfortable out here in the open than in Heppe Cave. I’m savoring the fall sunshine and being so close to this happy gathering of birds. In addition to the crossbills, siskins, nuthatches and juncos I’ve got mountain chickadees, white-crowned sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows and lesser goldfinches.


  1. Dear Elva,
    Thank you for very interesting post and beautiful paintings. I'd like to sketch Australian native birds one day.
    Kind regards, Sadami

  2. This sounds like a very entertaining interlude. I would be delighted to see any of these NWestern birds. You wrote so vividly about the splashing. I could see those little egg beaters working. Love your sketches. It is so dry here that I have as many birds at the water features as the feeders now.

  3. I just love reading about this. You write so wonderfully. No wonder you couldn't decide whether to sketch or write.

  4. ....beautiful paintings...and your narration is spellbinding. I loved reading about the experience in the cave.