Monthly Archives: December 2010

Early Bird

The birds of the Fill are not avi-kingdom’s earliest risers. In fact, contrary to how all the field guides say birds should behave, ours do not spring up off their perches to greet the pre-dawn with a chorus of songs and perky cheeps. With the exception of a few over-eager robins and the occasional gung-ho wren, Fill birds can’t even seem to muster a grumpy squawk in the dawn’s early light. They prefer to sleep in.

I can sympathize. While I do usually get up before dawn, I am not an early-morning get-out-of-the-houser. The heater is too cozy, the coffee too hot. The Times crossword calls to me, and all too frequently I answer. It’s hard to face the cold, dank chill of a Seattle winter. Much easier to spread an afghan over my lap, pull out the footrest of my Barca-lounger, and lean back in total comfort. Ah, civilization.

But then I start to hear a little voice in my head. It belongs to Ricky Young, famous Washington surfer. He is saying, “If you do nothing, nothing happens. If you do something, something happens.” His voice echoes Debra Shearwater’s, that pelagic birder par excellence. She begins to chant, “If you snooze, you lose.”

Right. Birds have flown to the Fill in the night. There is no telling what might await me. Time to force myself to hit the trail. I lower the lounger and put away the paper. I need to see.

If my friends’ voices manage to blast me out of the house before dawn, I am treated to sights so celestial they make the world look as if heaven itself had descended to visit the earth for a short time. The sun, too delicate to glare from on high, shines a soft glow of pale gold over the land. The waters of the Cove smoke with mist. Each blade of grass is beaded with diamond drops, each stone on the path casts a soft shadow.

As I walk toward the shore, the world gradually wakes up. A Red-tailed Hawk shakes her feathers, spreads her wings, and glides over the field. The sparrows who have been gathering the grass seeds in the field around the Lone Pine Tree for the past few weeks begin to arrive. They eye me warily when I set down my camp stool, but after a little while, they allow me to join the flock. It is so still, I can hear their little feet scrape against the grass as they search for seeds. It is a crackly, homey kind of sound, very comforting to the ear.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

The sparrows’ busy work reminds me of the times I used to join my mother in the kitchen before the rest of the family woke up. She would bustle around making lunches, getting breakfast ready, clearing the last of the dishes out of the sink. She let me sit there as she worked, giving me the great gift of feeling cared for. It is a feeling the flock grants me in the dawn, before the rest of the world wakes up.

May the Fill similarly bless you and keep you this day.


When I turned a tomboyish 12, my mother decided it was time to socially refine me. So she signed me up for ballroom dancing classes. A friend of hers, in cahoots, signed up her 12-year-old son. The results, for a girl more interested in sports than in deportment, in running more than in romance, were all too predictable. My cha-cha was more of a chug-chug. My box step never broke out of the box. And since we girls were all taller than the boys (Mom’s friend’s son included), my swing dance looked more like the limbo whenever  my partner tried in vain to twirl me under his upraised arm. As the popular limbo lyric asked, “How low can you go?” I couldn’t wait for the class to end, after which I vowed never to set foot in a ballroom again.

My vow broke, though, last Friday when I found myself attending a grand ball at the Fill. Oh, not in any of the CUH’s buildings. This one was staged in nature itself, and its stars were two Belted Kingfishers. I was privileged to have a front-row seat on my camp stool. The show began, as such affairs often do, with the pair making a dramatic entrance. The female came first, swooping in from the marina and chattering her castanets. The male followed, trailing his wings like a cape. Ah, I thought, the passionate, Spanish-inspired Paso Doble. The two circled each other, now almost touching, now flying apart. Then the male hovered in place while his partner danced all around him in a wild clatter of skirts. So fiery was she that one of her feathers flew off and blew away on the wind.

Then the mood changed, and the dance became a languid waltz, with the pair drifting over the bay and dancing back as one, swirling around each other in endless spirals of beauty. I found myself nodding in time to the unheard music. A Strauss tune, without a doubt. The minutes passed, and still the pair danced, on and on without pause. I watched for over an hour.

Then the mood changed again, as the two flew apart into different corners of the ballroom. I sat up on my camp stool. Something dramatic was about to happen. It began with the pair flying furiously toward each other, crossing in midair, turning back, crossing again, then circling to draw vast O’s and X’s in the sky. Finally, they joined for the most spectacular of all dance runs: the grand passage of the Quickstep. In a diagonal across the entire Fill, the two danced intertwined, wing beat matching wing beat, swoop following swoop, the moves too quick for the eye to follow. I thought my heart would stop.

The kingfishers reached the edge of the ballroom, flew back, and met again over my head, prepared for another pass. How much longer could they keep it up? I wondered. My derriere had long since lost all feeling, but neither bird showed any sign of flagging.

Belted Kingfisher, female

The female speaks her mind.

Then, just as they were starting their second grand pass, another male appeared and tried to cut in. The first male objected. A fight ensued. The female, no shy flower, egged on her chevalier from the sidelines. But as the fight continued, she seemed to realize she had lost their focus. She tilted her head, puzzled. “Wha?” she seemed to ask herself. “I, no longer the center of attention? This cannot be.” With a final (probably unprintable) remark, she flounced off the stage and went home.

Dance floor dudgeon. How well I understood.

Christmas Cheer

Double-crested Cormorants at the Montlake Cut.

The early cormorant gets the branch—four of the 50-plus Double-crested Cormorants who occupy the cottonwoods at the east end of the Montlake Cut.

Christmas is less than three weeks away, and many people took advantage of last weekend’s dry weather to put up their Christmas lights. It’s a fine show at night, when the lights are turned on.

The Fill is also putting on its Christmas show this week. To see it, though, you have to arrive here at dawn, just before the sun tops the Cascades. Walk down to the canoe rental house at the marina, where the Montlake Cut empties into Union Bay. Face south to take in Mt. Rainier on your left and the tall cottonwoods lining the Cut on your right. Then wait. If conditions are right, you will see a scene unlike any other on the planet.

First, the rising sun—still blocked by the mountains—limns the undersides of the dark clouds with glowing magenta. As the sky grows pinker, the lake becomes red, then molten gold, as though the water had become a sea of lava. Just so must the Columbia Plateau have looked eons ago, when lava covered the earth in fiery waves. In the distance, Mt. Rainier takes on the colors of the sky itself, turning rosy with alpenglow. Above the mountain, Venus glitters in the ice-blue sky, its aspect so clear you can see it as a disk: planet, not star.

Then the sun bursts forth, painting the clouds with streaks of aqua and topaz, indigo, tourmaline and amethyst. A movement catches your eye and you turn to the tall cottonwoods. They are covered from top to toe with Double-crested Cormorants, perched precariously on fragile branches like the world’s ugliest Christmas tree ornaments.

A Bald Eagle glides in from the north over the water with frightening speed. The ornaments spring up from their perches and scatter, each one convinced it is the target of the eagle’s attack. But no, the eagle already has a catch clutched in one foot: a small fish. The eagle lands on a log in the marina and proceeds to dine.

The cormorants circle the feeding eagle and slowly return to their trees. The first ones to come back always seem to be the most skilled at landing. They choose a branch, extend their feet, grab on, flap their tail a little for balance, then fold up their wings, necks, and bodies into black blobs.

Late-comers aren’t so efficient. Some grab branches that are too thin, bending them down almost to the breaking point, and then shooting back up again on them like a diver on a springboard. Sometimes the bird goes flying; sometimes it manages to hold on for dear life until the branch stills. Other late-comers try to usurp an already-occupied branch, hovering in midair like oversized hummingbirds until the branch’s owner snaps at them to drive them away. The branchless cormorants circle the bay and try again, sometimes four or five times.

They’re very persistent, even though they must know that water is their true element, not trees. Webbed feet, after all, are best designed for paddling, not perching. But the cormorants are absolutely determined to join their brethren on the branches. Eventually, every ornament is back in place again, and peace settles over the land.

I’m still ho-ho-ho-ing at the memory.