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In the flood plain of Prairie Creek, a few miles north of a small town called Orick, there’s a meadow I often walk through to spy on birds or escape the dark-closed canopy of fog-scraping redwoods. In the winter it’s a flooded swamp; during the summer it’s a field of sun-loving plants that cannot otherwise grow under the shade of the giant trees that surround this openness. Hwy 101 was constructed right through the middle of this prairie, polluting the natural melody with monstrous roars of metal demons whisking humans off to work, school, church, or a lover’s house.

When winter had ended and the water receded, spring’s vitality was reborn in this seasonally emerged marsh. I navigated through waist-high sedges hoping to witness the courtship of the many birds I heard singing. Every newly unfolded alder and willow bud became a vibrant green, sun-reflecting leaf. Dragonflies caught the morning light in their membranous wings and glowed like fairies from a mythical world. Freed from their submerged larval stages, sunlit caddis, stone, and mayflies floated over the meadow like fireflies of the day.

Suddenly, an acrobatic dance caught my attention. Two cedar waxwings, tan-colored, sparrow-sized birds with pointed crests and blackface masks, chased each other from alder to willow and from spruce to redwood. Following their bouncing flight with my eyes, I watched them engage in what looked like lovers tag. The pursuit temporarily ended in a redwood close to where I stood. Then, from a low branch, one of them dove off like a hawk-without flapping its wings-snatched an unsuspecting insect from the air. It slowed its diving momentum, hovering for an instant with the legs of its victim sticking out from the sides of its beak, and then turned to fly higher up in the same tree. It landed among some branches that held a clump of weaved twigs. A nest! I decided to make myself comfortable on a damp-decomposing log, watching the hunt to feed their young.

Both birds began chasing each other around the meadow again. They whizzed by only a few feet above my head and then across the road where a speeding car came roaring through and caught the leading bird on its windshield. The little body was thrown straight up into the air and then came tumbling back down to earth. I watched it drop with an unheard thud on the pavement; a small cloud of sunlit feathers drifted off in a breeze created by the fleeing vehicle. The bird’s mate landed next to it, hopping around the body making high-pitched cooing sounds, waiting for its companion to rise again. After a few minutes, it seemed to come to the tragic realization of its mate’s death. The survivor flew off, disappearing into a silhouette of trees.

My heart was breaking as I walked onto the black road to retrieve the small-feathered corpse. Holding the beautifully crested bird in my hand, I noticed an area of feathers was missing from her underside. This was the mother. She had plucked a section of her belly clean so that her warm, pink skin would have direct contact with her eggs and featherless young-a brood patch. I wondered if the father would return to feed his young or if the few hatchlings would starve to death in their nest, 50 feet up a redwood tree. I walked a mile along the highway before I realized the bird was still in my hand. When I kneeled down to bury her in the creek’s waters, I saw the stream-dwelling larvae of the insects that once fed this mother’s young and knew that they would not starve.

-Griff

Photo by © 2006 Tom Greer tbphotos@comcast.net.