Here to return to
MY FIRST WATER–OUZELS
THERE is no California bird, not even the big vulture, that I have been more insistent upon seeing than the water-ouzel. There is none to which so romantic an interest attaches. And it may be added that there is none which has cost me so many steps.
It is a bird of mountain cañons; not of their precipitous rocky sides, like the cañon wren, but of their hurrying brooks, and especially of their waterfalls. Technically, as men take account of such things, it is a land-bird, as under the same ruling the snipe and the woodcock are water-birds. But the bird does not know it. Where there is no water, look for no ouzel. As well seek the kingfisher, another “land-bird,” on the desert, or the hummingbird where there are no blossoms.
There were cañons at San Diego, but no mountain cañons; and there were mountains at Witch Creek, but no wild mountain brooks; so it was not until I reached Pasadena that I began to cast about in earnest for the home of the ouzel.
Three cañons were named to me; all rather far removed, but, the inducement being weighed, not too far. In so important a cause I was ready to sacrifice any reasonable amount of shoe-leather.
First, although this was an accident, due to insufficient, or insufficiently understood, directions, I tried the nearest and smallest. It was a pretty place, with something of a brook; but it seemed to be much frequented by picnickers, and perhaps was not secluded enough for the hermit1 I was seeking. Be that as it might, I did not find him.
Then I tried a second and larger cañon, two miles or more beyond, a distance which I increased materially by mistaking my course, stumbling into the arroyo too far down, and blundering about among the boulders a long while before striking the trail, so making a long and tiresome day of what should have been a comparatively short and easy one. And after all, though I sat for some time within sight of the cascade which had been my goal, I found no sign that any water-ouzel had ever been there. But for a solitaire, a most distinguished, aristocratic-seeming bird, always good to look at (this was only my second one), and a fretful cañon wren, the day would have been ornithologically a waste.
A second visit to the same cañon was equally unproductive, except that I took great interest in hearing for the first time the song of the Western robin. A large flock of the birds, a hundred or more, sat in a group of tall sycamores in the arroyo (the dry, rocky, gravelly, flood-wrought river-bed which leads into — or out of — every such ravine in this summer-dry Southwestern country), and one or two among them were in free voice. Their calls I had previously found to be indistinguishable from those of their Eastern relative. Now I learned, what I had found no book to tell me, that the same is true of the song itself. If I had heard it in Massachusetts, I should have remarked nothing peculiar about it.
The next morning, having been at all pains to obtain particular instructions, I set out for the third cañon, a last resort, a case of now or never, so far as the neighborhood of Pasadena was concerned. By a stroke of good fortune, when I had left the street-car and trudged across lots to the “avenue” that I had been instructed to follow, — an avenue running between orange groves and vineyards, and shaded by pepper-trees, — I was presently overtaken by a heavy wagon drawn by a pair of mules, the young driver of which invited me to ride.
“Thank you,” said I, and clambered up into the lofty seat beside him. “I am going into the cañon,” I said.
“Just where I am going,” he answered.
He was hauling stone out of the arroyo, it seemed. So this time I not only had made sure of my course, but was spared a mile or two of walking.
The cañon proved to be a romantic, closely walled place, narrowly tucked in between two contiguous mountains, each about six thousand feet high, and made alive, as it were, by the clearest of mountain brooks, while the deliciously sweet falling whistle of a cañon wren seemed to bid me welcome as I entered. Yes, said I, this is the place, and this is the day; and now for the water-ouzels!
Up the brook I went, first on this side for a few rods, then on the other for a like distance, as the water left room for me against the base of the cliff, till by and by I came to the falls, which, for any but initiated or decidedly resolute explorers, must be accepted as the head of the cañon. For myself, and for to-day, at all events, there was no thought of proceeding farther. And within five minutes I saw that to-day’s quest, like the others, was to end in failure. The falls, some fifteen or twenty feet in height, and the inviting pool of still water below, seemed to be all that the most fastidious ouzel could ask for; but the ouzel was not there.
I was nearly discouraged, but hope revived overnight, as it so often does (this is partly what nights are for); and in the morning I said, “I will try that place again.”
That was one of my good sayings. Socrates, in the same case, couldn’t have done better. I had gone perhaps halfway to the falls when I was startled by a rattle of loud, sharp cries, which seemed to rise from the bed of the brook in front; and two birds (I could not remember a minute afterward whether I had seen them or only heard them) went flying round the next turn up the stream. I stole hurriedly along, over boulders and what-not; and soon the same piercing calls were repeated. This time I saw nothing; but I understood now that I had only one chance left. If I was to overtake the birds again, it must be at the fall. Once above that, they would be lost.
Quietly — as quietly as possible, the going being what it was — I hastened forward till at last I had gone as far as I dared. If a side approach had been possible, the thing might have been easy; but the perpendicular walls shut me in, and I could do nothing but follow the brook. Then, with my glass focused upon the pool and the cascade above it, I waited. No sight, no sound. Hope was fading out, when a bird called. My eye followed the sound; and there, on the face of the cliff, wet by the spray of the falling water, stood the small, dusky creature that I had spent so many hours in seeking. Up and down he bobbed, wren fashion, on his light-colored legs, at every motion uttering a note of complaint; and then he took wing, flew up the fall and through the narrow opening above it, and was gone.
I lingered about the spot, keeping as much in shadow as might be, — the opportunity being of the poorest, — and even went back again and again after quitting the place altogether, in hope that the birds might have returned; but they had gone upstream for the day. It was too bad! So short a look after so long a hunt! But, anyhow, I had seen them. And who could tell? There would be another day to-morrow, and possibly I should then have better luck. So I munched my crackers and chocolate, and started for the last time downstream.
All this while, I should have said, I had been casting frequent glances skyward in search of the California condor. Unless it were the mountaintop, there could be no place where my chance of seeing him should be better. And sure enough, while I was still shut between the rocky walls, I looked up once more; and there he hung, in midair, a mile or so, it might be, overhead. Twice he turned in such a way that the sunlight shone full upon the under surface of his wings, lighting up the white coverts. It was he, my second sight of him. And this time how big he looked!
He disappeared all too quickly, but within fifteen minutes, when I had sat down in a little wider space to rest, with more sky-room overhead, I beheld him again. Now, by good luck, he was soaring in circles, and remained in sight a long while; and as often as he came about, those snow-white patches were illuminated. Higher and higher he rose, till if I lowered my glass I had hard work to find him again; and the greater the height, so it seemed, the larger he looked. Like Niagara and other such wonders, he was growing upon me.
I lost him at last, and had gone a good piece farther, when the same bird, or possibly another, came into sight once more, this time moving in a straight course with wings set. Half a mile, at least, I must have watched him fly without a stroke, till he disappeared over the eastern wall of the cañon. “Well, well,” said I, “this is my lucky day.”
A few rods more, and I was out of the cañon, away from the noise of the brook, in the dry, boulder-sprinkled bed of the arroyo. Here I dallied along, having still a considerable part of the afternoon before me, noticing a pair of scolding vireos (Hutton’s), and the bright, orange-colored, heavy-scented clusters of wallflower (a kind of maidenhair fern was common, also), when all at once I descried a pair of large birds soaring not far off. I lifted my glass; and behold, they were golden eagles. And a splendid chance they gave me, being at first extraordinarily near (for eagles), and then rising in circles as the condor had done. Sometimes the two were within the field of the glass at once. For a while they seemed to feel a lively curiosity about me, or about something in my neighborhood, craning their necks to look downward, and so displaying again and again the golden brown of their foreheads. Wonderfully athletic-looking birds they were, with that firm, immovable set of the outspread wings — like the condor in that respect, and very unlike the turkey vulture, whose tilting, unstable-seeming flight identifies him from afar.
And now what next? I thought. But that was the end. And for one day it was enough. “My lucky day,” I called it. And so it was; for on the morrow, hoping to duplicate the experience, at least in part, I visited the same cañon again; and lo, there was neither ouzel nor condor, nor so much as an eagle. There was nothing for me to do but to enjoy the cañon itself, with the flowers and the ferns, and to ruminate upon my good fortune of the day before. “If you would see things,” I said, “you must be willing to go and go, and go again, and be thankful for what is shown you.” All things come to him who keeps going. I should never have seen the ouzels if I had sat on my doorstep and whistled for them.
Just a week afterward, let it be added, for the sake of finishing the story, I went to the same cañon once more. A special breakfast had been ordered the night previous; for this time, if the thing were possible, I meant to be on hand so early that nobody should have preceded me on the cañon trail. That, I considered, was my only chance of success.
Well, I reached the entrance in excellent season and in high spirits, but just as I was preparing to put my superfluous umbrella (little shade) into hiding a stranger’s voice made itself heard from the bank immediately over my head. “Is this Eaton Cañon?” it inquired. I answered that it was. “It is a pretty place,” the stranger said; “I’ve just been up to the head of it.” It was well he could not read my feelings at that moment. I have seldom hated a man so cordially. “All this trouble for nothing!” I thought, and my spirits dropped to zero in no time.
Nevertheless, having got rid of my questioner as quickly as the briefest touch of politeness would permit, I followed the trail up to the falls. No ouzel, of course. I waited and waited, and at last gave over the search, comforting myself as best I could with the thought that possibly I might even yet have sight of a condor. No loafer of a tourist could have frightened him away. I loitered and looked, now standing, now strolling, now seated at my luncheon; but condors were as scarce as water-ouzels, and by and by I started homeward. That plague of an over-punctual man, who had no business in the cañon beyond an idle curiosity, had ruined my day.
But then, at the last minute, some influence brought me to a better mind. “I’ll give myself one more chance,” I said; “probably I shall never be here again.” And with that I took off my coat, and trudged once more up the trail. It was the old story till I came within sight of the falls. Then the now familiar notes were sounded, and in a moment my glass was on the birds.
There they stood, each on a boulder, gesticulating and scolding, and to my delight one of them presently dropped into the pool and swam across it. And now my attention was caught by the fact that every time either of them bobbed up and down he winked! For an instant his dark eye flashed white!
The effect was weird, I may truly say comical. A most extraordinary trick it surely seemed, the reason or motive of which I must leave for others to conjecture. For myself, I do not wonder that John Muir, in his prose poem upon the water-ouzel, one of the most supremely beautiful chapters ever written about any bird, makes no allusion to this habit. It would have been a jarring note. I looked and laughed, till at length the birds flew to the cascade wall, stood there for a minute or two side by side, still bobbing and winking, and then vanished upstream.
Probably I shall never have a nearer sight of them or of any like them. But how close I had come to missing my opportunity! And how many good things we must all have missed at one time and another, for lack of the one more trial that would have paid us thrice over for all our pains!
1 On further acquaintance I should hardly call the ouzel a hermit, nor does he confine himself to mountain brooks. At Sisson I found him more than once singing from a boat drawn up on the bank of a small roadside lake; and at Banff and in the Yosemite, as well as in the Ute Pass at Manitou, I have seen him perfectly at home where men on foot and in carriages were continually passing close by him, or over his head. There are few birds, indeed, that seem less put out by human propinquity.