An old friend flies by in Last Chance Basin

Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2008

My first thought upon waking that morning was that I'd like to go tracking somewhere that was likely to yield a variety of animal tracks in the snow. Alas, a quick look out of my windows revealed that the snow had disappeared at lower elevations. This necessitated a rapid change of plans.

After due deliberation, I wandered up along Gold Creek in Last Chance Basin with a two-footed and a four-footed friend. There were deer tracks in the sand in several places - the only tracks of wild creatures that we found. A few golden-crowned kinglets and chestnut-backed chickadees called in the tree canopy.

It was clear that, sometime in the past several months, big water had come down the creek. Brush piles had been rearranged. Overflow channels were worn down to large gravel and recently exposed tree roots. As we wove our way through the alders, we wondered what the basin has been like before the early miners tore up the valley floor with hydraulic pacer mining. Perhaps it was a floodplain covered with gravels that attracted those miners, but it seems unlikely that there are photos of its pre-mining condition.

The nicest thing we saw was one of our banded dippers. She wore a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aluminum band and three plastic color bands on her legs, and we know her as GreenBlueBlue or GBB. She's a pretty old bird, for a dipper. She was banded, as an adult, far upstream in 2005. There she nested near the base of a high waterfall, raising chicks successfully with the same mate in two summers. In 2007 (and 2008), however, her old nest site was still buried in snow at the time when nesting would typically begin. So, in 2007, we found her way downstream near the spillway, with a new mate who also had held this territory the previous year.

The 2007 nest of GreenBlueBlue was in a perfect site in a niche in a monstrous boulder, high above flood levels and virtually predator-free. A tiny hemlock tree adorned her doorstep. She and her mate raised several chicks that year. In the spring of 2008 she was back in the lovely boulder site again. But something was wrong! She sat in that nest for weeks, well beyond the normal span of incubations. Her mate fed her occasionally, as usual, and she sat and sat and sat. We don't know what was wrong, but eventually she gave up, and they built a new nest under the broken spillway just upstream. Their second try was successful, and in due course we saw fluffy little fledglings outside the nest, begging lustily for food.

So we have known this bird for four years. Because she was banded as adult, she could have reached adulthood before we knew her. But we know she is at least five years old (dippers mature the first year after hatching). We have very few banded birds that have nested for four or more years. Most of them only live for one or two years as adults.

In winter, GBB often wanders up and down Gold Creek, wherever there is ice-free water flowing. She probably also visits other watersheds; our local dippers commonly move from stream to stream in winter, up and down the coastline, back and forth to Douglas Island. Seeing a bird that we have seen every spring for four years, and whose history we know, at least in part, is like seeing an old friend (from our perspective, if not from hers!).

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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