by John Day
Dear Members and Friends of Skagit Audubon Society,
First, a belated Happy 2023 to everyone! The last three years have been particularly challenging for many of us and I hope this one offers more positive changes.
A couple of weeks ago, on a tip from some friends, my wife Martha and I visited Coal Creek east of Sedro Woolley to see salmon spawning. As we parked by the side of Minkler Road just west of the bridge, two county dump trucks were pulling out after being filled by a front-end loader from a huge pile of sandy, dark sediment that must have been excavated from the creek bed after the November 2021 flood event.
The creek channel downstream from the bridge looked like a construction zone because of the recent excavation, but despite this dozens of coho were splashing in the shallow riffles, with females turning on their sides to scoop out redds in the gravel with their tales and males vying with each other to fertilize the eggs as they were being laid. Fish carcasses in various states of decay lay at the edge of the water.
As we approached the bridge (and the noise of the departing dump trucks subsided), we heard a loud, rollicking song echoing in the vault-like space underneath. It was a song I hadn’t heard for a while, but which I recognized from time spent in western mountains and canyons, including on sub-zero winter days along predominantly snow and ice-bound creeks in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming near where I grew up. It was a male American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), our only truly aquatic songbird, and here was his mate as well.
Later, while Martha explored downstream, I sat on the bank watching one of the dippers feeding a few feet away. The bird would land on a rock in the stream, constantly doing its namesake, bobbing dance and occasionally shaking water from its feathers. Periodically, it would thrust just its head into the stream and then pop back up with its white nictitating membranes (third eyelids) blinking bright white. After peeking into the water like this several times, the bird would jump into the creek, splash vigorously with its wings and tail for a second or two at the surface, and then disappear below. When it popped back up on the rock a few moments later, there would usually be a spherical, bright pink salmon egg in its bill, which it would promptly swallow.
In addition to the joy of seeing the salmon and dippers that day, I was heartened to find them both in such a disturbed location. Clearly there is much that needs to be done to prevent further degradation and restore habitat in streams like Coal Creek, but this was a reminder of how resilient nature can be if we just give it a chance. And, what a privilege to witness this ancient relationship between salmon and their feathered neighbors. I look forward to returning to the bridge over the next few months to see if the dippers are nesting there. With such a rich food source in these winter months, it looks like it might be a good spring for this pair. Photo credit: American Dipper by Derek Hameister/Macaulay Library/allaboutbirds.org