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The Water Ousel, Nature's Premier SInger of Melodies
Nevada State Journal, October 28, 1923, page 1




The most lovable, pretty, cunning and interesting feathered chap among all the birds is the water ousel, that makes his home along the very swift waters and falls of the rivers.

He is rated with the plover company. This shore bird is about the size of a plump quail - a slatish gray. He has the distinct habit of bending his knees and raising and lowering his body, the same as all the plover family. Very often they are found in the shallows along the shores feeding. They have bright, sparkling eyes, a sharp bill, of the insectiverous type, and a short, square bobbed tail, and rapid in movementy.

Feeds on Insects' Eggs

To the observing, seasoned angler, he is the most companionable, engaging living thing that haunts the rivers. He darts here and there, will turn his head sideways and study the specks of living feed, so small that the human eye cannot determine them. Then his little head will hammer and strike around the rocks for all the world like a woodpecker, pounding away on a dead stump. His feed consists of the jelly masses that harbor the eggs of water insects, that when hatched in turn become the flies of the different species, that develop durin the warm months and can be seen in dense clouds at eventide.

Now something attracts his attention as it moves in the low water along the edges of the stream. With a cute little run, for he is a walking bird, his head will dart out like a flash and then again and again in the same spot. Then backward and forward he will stretch and walk, all the time keeping one eye on the water.

A Delight to Anglers

To the fisherman he is a delight. The angler will stand in the water where it swirls about his ankles. The ousel will approach without fear and intensely investigate every inch of the shallows. Then, when he reaches the fisherman, he will likely as not hop on the wading shoe, turn his little head sideways, and look right up into the face of the person who stoops over to get a better view of the proceedings. Then his attention is diverted from the minute investigation of the human being and he wades out into the water, and with head submerged will feed and feed until every last particle of the food is cleaned from the rocks. He will walk with his head under water for some time, and in and out his head appears. There seems to be no enemy that he fears. Again he will locate some special object in water a foot deep. Under he goes entirely covered with the waters. He stands on his feet and will remain under for a minute at a time, and his fast working bill will cover the diameter of a rock like a cooper goes around a barrel. Then when he comes to the surface he will dart shoreward and perch upon a dry rock and prime and dress his feathers. He is the busiest living thing in bird or animal life along a stream.

The water ousel almost invariably builds his nest in dark nooks under rocks, spillways, or old timbers above the water, where the spray splashes against the nest. In many cases running water pours over the little home incessantly.

His Nest is Work of Art

The nest itself is a work of art - about the size of a large hornet's nest and of similar shape. He lays the foundation of plastic clay, water-proof, very small rushes, covered with leaves, and in that way builds up to the cone or apex of the nest. The construction of the nest itself, absolutely water-proof, shows a portico cunningly built over the entrance to the nest, extending outward in a small curve for about four or five inches in length, with frontal width about two inches.

The nest is first lined with rushes, then a plastic clay cementing the rushes, then a covering of the finer grasses and mosses.

There is a perch also built for the birds to land upon before entering the nest, which is horizontal and about two inches long, showing absolutely perfect proportions.

Here is Mother Love

The young do not leave the nest until fully grown. Both the female and male feed their young continuously during the daylight hours, mostly with flies and insects of the water species. When fully grown, the male and female ousel still feed their young, even when fully matured, and along the swift running mountain streams, during the months of June and July, the full-feathered young show much larger than the parent bird. There are generally four young in the nest.

The water ousel is the one bird of the outlands that has absolutely nothing to do with, and pays no attention to, any other specie of the feathered tribe. He has no fear of reptile, bird, or animal life, and is perfectly capable of taking care of himself under any conditions.

Outsings Mocking Bird

Along the mountain streams, where the swift running water swirles around rocks, in places far removed from civilization, and always within the zone wherein the mocking bird lives, the writer for over forty years, in the short days of late October at daylight has heard the songster. Thinking that it was the mocking bird singing, it always seemed that the tones changed during this time of the year, as there was a vibrant sweetness that didn't obtain during the summer evenings and early morning, when the mocking bird sings.

On October 23, 1923, the usual fishing trip into the Truckee river canyon was taken. An early morning train let me off at the flag station Iceland, just as the sun was touching the highest peaks. The sky was a perfect radium blue. At Iceland the canyon is very deep and narrow. The water rushes through the canyon like a mill race, around immense boulders, logs, and the base of perpendicular cliffs.

There is an old wooden bridge which crosses the Truckee river three-quarters of a mile above the flag station. There are the remains of an old dam immediatelyh above this bridge, and the falls shoot through under the bridge, dashing spray ten and fifteen feet high. A fish ladder on the south side almost covered with the debris of flood times, banks up almost one span.

On this morning the thermometer stood at 24. The ground was white with hoar-frost. The tree tops under the bridge at the fish ladder were gloriously beautiful, icicles with a million radiations as the reflection of the sun dropping down toward the bottom of the canyon made a reflex ray.,

Starts Its Reveille

Setting up the fly rod, a few casts were made, but icicles formed in the guides, and all had to be dipped into the water to free the cast. It was while recovering a cast that a song bird began its reville. It seemed to come from the brush or trees. The displacement of atmosphere where water rushes over obstructions invariably lifts near stream surface sounds. Not over six feet away, perched on an angle of the fish ladder was the little slate-gray water ousel, almost hidden in jewelled surroundings, most picturesque. His sharp bill was pointed toward the rising sun. Without fear of contradiction, I say that the music that came from his throat has no compare among the feathered songsters of any specie. It was music. The melody held one spellbound. He trilled the song of the song-sparrow that sounded more like the music of a master of the flute. Then he caroled the peculiar five notes of the yellow warbler; then the cat bird, and then even the raucous strain of the yellow hammer; then into the sweetness of the combined birds that was a violincello artists's supreme music. He gave his wonderful concert for ten minutes.

It is an assured fact now that he does not sing at any period of the year except when the streams are about to be closed, when the surroundings are of winter, and the thermometer below freezing, and in the very early morning hours.

A Game of Tag

Watching him closely, just as he ceased his wonderful songs, another water ousel came from across the stream above, directly at the singer, and with a little scolding cry, charged at the singer with every appearance of being angry.

The beautiful little slate-gray bobtail songster darted to the great pond below the dam, with the second one about five feet bhind, still making his peculiar chattering cry. The first bird dove beneath the ice cold water for a distance of about twelve feet. The pursuing bird did likewise. Both emerging the same time and at about the same distance apart as when they were in the air. Back across the stream the first water ousel dove, at least a dozen times, and the second one followed in exactly the same manner. Then both, with their peculiar chattering cry, took off down stream.

The sun at this time had appeared upon the water and there was no more song from the water ousel during the day.

Anyone may find the water ousel singing his beautiful, melodious song from daylight until about the time the sun strikes the water in his vicinity.

Plentiful Near Reno

They are very plentiful between Reno, up the Truckee river canon, and almost reaching to Boch, but the early cold morning is the only time that he sings. The discovery of this song bird was rather a shock to the writer, and of course a revelation, as it never entered within the confines of the status of this bird to even suppose that he was the premier songster of the feathered tribe. It is surely well worth a trip on a clear sky morning, when the sun is sure to be bright, and the river edged with ice, and the ground and the trees along the streams covered with frost. Only then will one find this bird, and hear such music as has never entered into the order of things from a bird.

The water ousel lives along the turbulent mountain streams for the whole year, winter included. It is not unusual to see him going under the ide for his food around the rocks.

Very Little Known

He is the least known of all the feathered tribe. On the Gunnison, in Colorado, in front of my bungalow, which was situated on the banks of this stream, I have seen them dive into the narrow unfrozen swift riffles, remaining there ars long as two minutes, then flying upstream a little ways further and going into the water under the ice again.

A good view in front of my home there was a small quiet pool, which gave every advantage for close observation. I repeat that never before did I know that this bird was a wonderful early winter songster.

In passing, it might be interestomg to know how this little chap lives in the winter. It is generally well above the stream, in places like old log abuttments of bridges, and well back into the crevasses where the formation has opened and where it is dry and warm, and far removed from attack by animals, or the greater birds that prey upon the lesser.

(Copyright, 1923, by Jack Bell.)

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