Spotted Sandpipers are as common as the commas in my thoughts. They twitter across the river and then come back. Their short wings beat quickly, but the motion seems clipped, caught in steps of downstroke and up, as if the waves of the river created a stroboscopic effect. The Sandpipers poke among the cobbles at the margin the Selway River. They probe a few square inches of stones and then fly.
I walk up Meadow Creek, a wide tributary of the Selway River. A Dipper does knee-bends on a tree trunk that has lodged midstream at the edge of a cascade. Sure that the bird’s bobbing portends a dive into the cascade, I stop to watch. The Dipper continues to bob. I step back into a patch of shade and lean my chin on my hands at the top of my trekking pole. The Dipper bobs and then preens, cleaning his wings and then under them. A month ago on another tributary of the Selway I watched patiently as a Dipper bobbed for 15 minutes—I had hoped that bird would dive, but its knee dipping turned to nothing but preening, and I gave up. I give up again as the Dipper on Meadow Creek preens its other wing.
The trail along Meadow Creek is crowded by thimbleberries that slap at my belly and bracken ferns that poke my chest. I watch my steps in the green thicket—rattlesnakes are common in this area. It is not a snake but the scramble and holler of small birds that gets my attention. A mock orange stands high to my left and the debris of a fallen cedar lies to my right. Small, dark birds fly among the mock orange and other shrubs. They hop from branch to branch until they take reasonable vantages. One sits in the mock orange just steps ahead on the left and another on a branch of the fallen tree on my right. A third bird circles behind me, coming up on the right and down the trunk of the horizontal tree to land just behind the righthand bird. Their alarm calls are loudly out of proportion for their tiny size. They are wrens and almost solidly brown except for dark bands across their pertly upright tails. I take my Sibley Guide from my pack to look at the possible wrens. Winter Wrens—a new bird for me. I love to see new birds.
In the late afternoon, I return to the Selway River to camp. I sit about 20 feet from the river, which has a high, cacophonous roar, holding the whoosh of tons of water and the clatter of the flow against midstream boulders, and, yet as I listen, I can hear the softer lap of little marginal waves against shore stones. I sit under western red cedar, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine to read but a flock of small birds fluttering from branch to branch and tree to tree distracts me. I twist in my seat to follow the birds—following their songs. They sound like squeaky wheels. Six squeaky wheels surround me, and I search the branches to locate the birds. They are quick. I fumble my binoculars. Can’t get them focused. Try one eye. Focus on a branch. Search for the bird. The squeaky wheel moves. Try another. It moves. I give up on the binoculars. The birds are small—only four or five inches from beak to tail tip—and sleek. Gray and unmarked to my nearly naked myopic eyes. I guess they might be Bushtits but hardly feel satisfied with this.
I sit again, thinking I’ll read and ignore the squeaky wheels. Crows converse on the opposite shore. The Bushtit problem keeps my reading unfocused. I catch a dark flight to a low branch near the river. The bird settles and stays, and I reach for the binoculars. A Varied Thrush. What a damn good bird—it sits unmoving on the branch as I focus the binoculars and shows me a strong, steady profile as I watch. If only all birds had the steadiness of the Varied Thrush!