THE water ouzel is woodland's Thoreau, drab in appearance, yet solitary and free, occasionally bursting into a song so rare and so intertwined with the sounds of rushing, falling water that it seems impossible ever to record all its nuances. A friendly Seattle feature editor of mine tried to record one at Fifteen Mile Creek which rushes through my land on Tiger Mountain. He got only water sounds when he played back his tape.
In a world where commerce and industry hold sway, the ouzel takes its independent stand, haunting the unpolluted waters of mountain streams or of creeks running through wild timber or rocky, logged-off lands. It never alters its course of personal freedom.
If the character of the surrounding country changes too radically or waters become impure, the ouzel moves on, following watercourses, to another section of wild-running stream which becomes its new territory. Winter and summer the ouzel - or dipper - bathes, bobs, hunts, nests, and frolics in cascading torrents, enjoying a wild and Spartan existence.
Although it seldom lives farther east than the Rockies and so was unknown to Thoreau, I think the man of Walden would have admired the bird which in character so resembles himself.
``Life consists of wildness. The most alive is the wildest,'' he said. The water ouzel is his maxim come to life. Swift water is its usual home. With its peculiar bobbing motion, the bird does nervous deep-knee bends astride a slippery rock at stream center, then walks down into the water, in search of periwinkles on the stream floor.
YEARLONG, the ouzel has its same habitat, for its covering of down (which makes it different from all other perching birds) protects it from subzero temperatures.
Residents from northern Alaska and the Yukon have it for a winter companion. And John Muir recounts seeing the ouzel moving about under the thin ice between air holes on lakes in the High Sierra. Even casual observers have seen the ouzel perched jauntily on a snow-puffed rock in the center of a nearly iced-over stream. Under such conditions it's most easily seen, for in the summertime it might be but a slaty shadow skimming the tree-shadowed surface.
In more than two decades of close (some years, almost daily) association with ouzels, I have known the location of only one nest.
Before I came to Tiger Mountain, a log 4 feet through had jammed between the two solid rock abutments of the creek's canyon, about 200 feet upstream from a 15-foot waterfall. In one of the creek's winter rages, minor logs had jackstrawed under this log, boulders had lodged behind them, and the entire canyon had filled in with smaller gravel - raising the creek until it flowed over, rather than under, the log. In a shadowy, water-strickled slot, under the downstream bulge of the log, water ouzels nested.
I did not know that they had done so until the three young ones were in process of leaving the nest: Two had come out and still the beak-bristling parents perched on the log, their feet hidden by running water, dipped and dodged down and under and into the shadowy cavern below. Eventually the third hatchling emerged - but it was a frail one, standing for hours on a rock in stream center a few feet from the nesting site, bobbing and chattering. When all had left the nest for sure, I looked into their damp incubation place and found a rounded nest of moss and maidenhair fern roots with its entrance hole on the downstream side.
I found that the ``adolescent'' ouzel, once out of the nest, is a demanding creature: It stands on a rock and learns to dip - i.e., bends its knees and drops, then stands up straight again, almost as rapidly as one can count ``one-hundred-and-one.'' Meanwhile, it sounds one piercing note like the shriek of a water sprite come to life.
The parents hunt all day and into evening's last glimmer of light for periwinkles, waterlogged small green worms fallen from alder trees overhanging the creek, and for whatever other protein they can find. When they bring food, the young one whir-r-rs its wings as it swallows; then cries: ``More.''
John Muir says, correctly, that the ouzel sings all winter and never minds the weather. Certainly its song repertoire is as varied as its plumage is dull. It seems to make music of everything it experiences in nature. In this the water ouzel is a poet.
The hills and mountains and maidenhair fern ... the nest that glows like a mossy green ball behind a waterfall ... the lushness of periwinkles (as evinced by a neat pile of their sand-pebble-and-stick shells on the stream bottom at the foot of a favorite ouzel perching rock) - all are matter for song.
When winter turns to April, the ouzel looses in the evening a song as rare as the spirit of reawakening earth, and there is little doubt then to its relation to the thrushes and thrashers.
For, as Thoreau says: ``There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still.''
There is a beautiful thing about the water ouzel. While it may eternally amaze, amuse, and please one, one never considers attempting to possess it. Here is perhaps the one creature on earth, outside of the Komodo Dragon, that one would not attempt to tame.
When I came to know the water ouzels of my home stream, for perhaps the very first time in my life I became not merely resigned to living ... not at odds with life ... not fighting or resenting it. For the first time I learned truly to love life, be glad of it ... happy to be in and with it ... almost as if I had got life down to the size of a beach ball so that it could be juggled in the hands. I learned that one can be totally free and unafraid, like a water ouzel.