Until that Monday, I'd never caused a death. Maybe I still haven't, but I don't know for sure, and the vision of it keeps rearing up in my mind.
I was bathing tired feet in snowmelt waters after hours of walking in the wildflower havens of the Elk Mountains. The alpine meadows teemed with columbines and avalanche lilies, yellow cinquefoil, flax, purple monkshood.
As I waded into the creek, white-crowned sparrows and Lincoln's sparrows called in the summer dusk. "Look, an ouzel,” I called to my husband. The dusty gray-black bird, a little smaller than a robin, flew inches above the water and alighted under the bridge. Ouzels, or American dippers, spend summer and winter along high mountain streams. They search for aquatic insects, plunging in and out of the current, swimming by beating their wings underwater.
"It's feeding nestlings,” Chuck observed. The bird flew under the old one-lane bridge to a chorus of loud cheeps. I waded downstream and looked up. Four big juveniles peered out at me from a large, globular nest just above my head. I backed away hastily and called to Chuck, "Get the camera, quick.”
Chuck handed me the camera and I turned on the flash. "Don't blind the birds,” he said. "It won't hurt them,” I scoffed. "It'll be fine.”
I waded back under the bridge and raised the camera. Then it happened. Before I could even locate the birds in the viewfinder, the young dippers began leaping out of the nest, one, two, fluttering and falling around me, three, four, brushing across my back, dropping into the creek, floating away. It was like a popcorn popper with the lid left off. "Oh, no,” I wailed, "they're leaving the nest!” Were they old enough to survive on their own?
I chased the dippers, my feet by now numb and clumsy in the icy water, as birds fluttered off in all directions. "Oh no, oh no, oh no,” I moaned. It had happened so fast, and it wasn't what I meant at all, not at all; I love birds, I love looking at birds, observing birds for hours, never disturbing them. I hated the thought of bothering animals in their own territory, and suddenly I was a lumbering velociraptor, a predator, terrifying these mountain birds, these magicians of water and air. I had destroyed a lovely equanimity, it seemed, and I stumbled and tripped in the frigid water, trying frantically to fix it. Oh, to rewind time, to undo the mistake.
It had been mere moments. Three birds reached a gravel bar on the left bank and scrambled across it. "One is too weak to get out of the water,” Chuck shouted. It was caught in an eddy. I staggered down the creek, but it fled from me into the current and was swept farther and farther downstream.
I was just making things worse! Maybe I could grab the dippers from shore and stuff them back into the nest? I splashed across to the gravelly left bank, and the three little dippers skittered out of reach. It was like trying to catch ... wild birds. There was no putting this genie back into its bottle. Chuck ran up and down the bank trying to help. "Here come the adults,” he called. Surely the parents would find their young.
I waded out of the creek. "We can't help them,” Chuck said. We watched in dismay as the adult dipper, bug in its beak, flew to the nest, then back to its creekside perch, still carrying the bug. I had caused this.
We were overdue for a party in town. I washed my hot face in the creek and pulled on fresh jeans and a sweater. We fretted as Chuck drove, too fast. The birds would still be snug in the warm nest, bellies full of fresh-caught bugs, if not for me. Now they were at the mercy of any passing coyote, any stalking blue heron. Why hadn't I been satisfied with one quick look?
It was a fine party, and we drank beer and ate barbecue and laughed with old, long-absent friends. I meant to keep a party face, but when I saw Jason, the ouzel story came spilling out. Jason, a bird expert, was reassuring. "Don't worry about it. The parents will still feed them and look after them. This is how they fledge. It's OK.” Then the party waters rose and separated us, and I got another beer.
We got into the truck under a white quarter moon for the 50-mile drive home across the pass. And I wept, seeing again and again the young birds launching themselves into the air, fluttering to the cold creek and floating downstream, fluttering into their future, ready or not, here they come, ready or not, here we go.
Jane McGarry writes poems and essays and edits books at home near Paonia, Colorado.