The Power of Water –For Better and For Worse

Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan have just been hit 500 year floods  – in some cases just a few years after the last 500 year flood.  The rain came down non-stop overnight, drenching the land with as much as 10 inches and pushing streams over their banks. Yesterday a dam failed on the Tamarack River putting more people in danger of flash floods.

The power of moving water is awesome – we are struck dumb when we see asphalt highways and streets washed away.  Water has literally carved mountains.  When this sort of destruction occurs we realize just how powerless we are.  The structures we build with our best materials, cannot withstand a constant onslaught of this very basic component of life here on earth.  We depend on water for survival and we are at its mercy when conditions coalesce in a catastrophic way.

A week ago we were in South Dakota – Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills.  This is an area that has seen its share of flash floods too, but while we were there we only experienced the beautiful sound and sight of Roughlock Creek as it flowed through the canyon floor.  There are some small waterfalls on this stream and from past experience Mike knew that American Dippers could be found there.  These little grey birds are unique among songbirds, because they will immerse themselves completely in the water, in search of insects and small (fry) fish.

I was really hoping to see one and I scanned the riffles for any sign of the bird. Then one of our trip participants said he had seen one flying upstream and sure enough, there it was, standing on a rock right next to a slight drop.  It hopped into the water and we marveled that its grip was strong enough to keep it from being washed downstream, but it showed no sign of slipping as it dipped its head beneath the surface.  The walkway we were on was only 10-12 feet away from the waterfalls, so we stood a long time

Roughlock Creek in Spearfish Canyon - Dipper habitat

Roughlock Creek in Spearfish Canyon – Dipper habitat

American Dipper in its natural habitat

American Dipper in its natural habitat

the Dipper maneuvered its way across the flow – in and out of the small rapids.  Finally, it found some insects and took off flying over the lip of the waterfall and upstream to (we assumed) a nest, which is normally built close to the water on an overhanging rock. The American Dipper has found a niche that other birds cannot access and it has succeeded because of that.

In our yard, we have three small ponds.  The largest one has some cattails in it that were planted by visiting Red-wing Blackbirds, who carried the seeds inadvertently, on their feet or feathers.  We have learned since we put in the first pond that it is a magnet for wildlife.  Birds especially have found this a great spot to stop and drink or bathe in.  Yesterday we witnessed an arrival we never expected to see.  I heard a lot of cheeping coming from the trees near the pond. It wasn’t a familiar sound and without my glasses or binoculars I couldn’t easily see the birds to identify them.

Juvenile Red Crossbill -notice the crossed bill.

Juvenile Red Crossbill -notice the crossed bill.

They began flying down to the water, landing on the cattail leaves and hopping

Adult male Red Crossbill.

Adult male Red Crossbill.

along the rocks.  There was a steady movement of birds flying up to the maple tree and others flying down to the pond.  When I finally got the binoculars, I was shocked to see that the bird had a crossed bill.  . The majority appeared to be brown in color which meant they were juveniles – just recently fledged from their nests.  I did see one or two red colored adults flying away and since I didn’t see any white on their wings, I determined that they were the Red Crossbill species.

We have never seen them before in the summer months, though they are known to move around from one coniferous forest to the next. Those crazy looking crossed mandibles are specifically designed to be able to pry apart pine cones to get to the seeds.

The power of water, whether moving or held in one place is constantly being demonstrated for us.  We and the birds are both drawn to it.

By Kate Crowley