Since I don’t drive, the vast majority of my birding is self-propelled. Biking and most especially walking tend to accustom a person to a certain pace — a pace that is leisurely and lends itself to reflection and rumination. Such meditative birding is, for me, the heart of the experience. It relieves stress, helps me make decisions, and leaves me feeling refreshed. What could be better?
Sometimes, though, you’ve got to mix it up a little. And birding on foot in the July heat can sometimes be less than refreshing on the physical plane, no matter what it does mentally. So when a group of friends invited me to join them in a float on the Blackfoot River, I agreed, although with some trepidation; though this spring’s flooding is over, water levels are still high and the rivers more challenging than usual. Would I see birds, or would I spend all my time trying not to drown?
Spoilers: I saw birds.
There were five of us, and two dogs, traveling in a flotilla composed of a raft, a canoe, and a kayak. I was far and away the least experienced on the water, even counting the dogs, so I stayed in the raft and performed such vital tasks as taking pictures and handing people beers.
This left me a lot of time for looking around. Yet it was the guy in the kayak, a UM ornithologist, who spotted the Lewis’s Woodpeckers. There were two of them, moving across the river from snag to snag with their crow-like wingbeats. I got a look just good enough to justify adding them to my life list as we drifted past. Unlike what you may have read, real rivers bear us ceaselessly into the future.
But if there was not doubling back, there was also no getting exhausted and deciding to double back home. There was plenty of time to sip a beer. There was plenty of time to try to convince the dogs that the people in the canoe were not in imminent danger and did not need to be rescued. There was plenty of time to observe the scores of Spotted Sandpipers that seemed to be everywhere along the bank, peeping and flitting and bobbing in a post-breeding season riot of abundance. The Common Mergansers were a little further behind – the two females we spotted were chaperoning thirteen downy young between them. The Bald Eagles that nest along the river had apparently had a very poor breeding season, the high water making their usual fishing spots less productive, so the ornithologist told me; we only saw one of the adults.
Eventually the dogs jumped in to rescue the canoers, only to make for shore. This meant that we had to pull over and retrieve them; jumping out to try to help secure the raft, I misjudged the depth and took my only swim of the day. Fortunately, I was wearing a life jacket and my water-resistant binoculars actually lived up to their billing.
At that stop, and the subsequent stop for a quick lunch cooked on a portable grill, we saw the casings of molted stoneflies and a few salmonflies. The flies themselves hovered over the river everywhere, a banquet for insectivores. Sure enough, we soon encountered a colony of Cliff Swallows – the first I’d ever seen nesting on actual cliffs instead of man-made structures. Maybe I was being borne back into the past just a little.
If I was, I was soon jolted out of it by our encounter with the only major rapids of the trip. I am not a roller-coaster fan, and I was a bit splashed and jolted, but on the raft I was in no serious danger – unlike my friends in the canoe. We stood by ready to rescue them as they came through the stretch, but they stayed impressively upright and afloat.
It was growing late in the day by now. The slanted light would have made tricky IDs trickier, but instead old friends surrounded us – more Spotted Sandpipers, a Great Blue Heron, an American Kestrel in the top of a pine as we floated by the Ninemile Prairie. It was getting cooler now, but puffs of warm juniper-scented air drifting down from the hills kept us from getting uncomfortable.
By the time we pulled up on shore, the Common Nighthawks and the bats were out. We built a small fire, changed into dry clothes, and waited while two of the party took the previously-stashed car back to the launch point to retrieve the truck and trailer. I watched the Nighthawks circle in the gathering dark and finished the last of the beer.
Spotted Sandpiper photo courtesy of the Forest Service and David Herr.