Saturday, February 10, 2007

Water Dancer

Dancer bobbed like a tiny boat on the blue-gray lake. Ripples rocked his small body while he waggled his feet. Afloat for the first time, he struggled to stay close to his mother, a black-and-white western grebe.

All of a sudden, Dancer felt the water swirl around his toes. A sense of alarm shot through him. His father surfaced alongside, water glistening on his long neck. His cap of black feathers lifted, a sure sign of danger. Dancer's mother moved closer as well and stretched one leg backward. The little grebe stepped aboard and climbed onto her back. The family swam quickly away from the marshy shore.

Behind them, a dark, undulating form surfaced. A blunt-nosed, bewhiskered face watched with beady eyes as the grebes paddled away. Then the river otter began to search for another meal that might not be so closely guarded.

The grebes' home lake lay in a valley among the western mountains. Thickly treed slopes guarded the west and draped over the shoulders of a range of hills to the south. At the base of those hills, a small city sprawled along the waterfront. Its long, wooden wharf poked out into the water and bisected the bay. Dancer heard intermittent noises from the town, mingled with the screams of ring-billed gulls and the twittering of swallows that dipped and swooped over the water. Red-winged blackbirds' scratchy calls echoed along the marshy shoreline. The grebes' chirping, two-note calls punctuated the chorus.

Dozens of birds like Dancer's parents dotted the bay. The colony of western grebes returned each spring to perform their unusual courtship ballet. After the high-stepping water dance, they mated and nested on the swell of high water in the nature sanctuary on either side of the wharf. Alongside them or riding piggyback like Dancer were more fluffy gray chicks. This sheltered part of the lake had become a giant grebe nursery.

Dancer had pecked his way from the egg in a floating, reed-lined nest only the day before. Barely an hour after he emerged into the bright daylight, his feathers had dried to gray fluff. Not yet ready to swim, he left the nest to catch a ride on his personal watercraft—his mother. Snuggled between her short wings, warm and safe on her back, he took his first tour of the neighborhood. As he rode in comfort, his father dived deep into the lake to catch small fish for him.

As Dancer grew, his feathers gradually lost their gray tones. In about six weeks he would look almost exactly like his parents—duck-sized body with little or no tail, dark plumage above and white below, and incredible red eyes. In the meantime he discovered some important uses for his uniquely shaped feet. His lobed toes were rounded and rather flat instead of being completely divided by webbing like a duck's feet. Set far back on his body, they made excellent rudders for steering and strong paddles for propelling him through the water. But if he tried walking on land, he tipped forward. Best to stay on the lake, where his true talent—diving—could shine.

From a young age, Dancer followed his parents in ever deeper dives. His lengthening neck helped him twist and turn in pursuit of small fish that darted about in the depths. His narrow, pointed, yellow-green bill was ideal for snatching and holding slippery meals. Only his wings didn't seem to keep up with the rest of his body. In fact, they would never become very long, or strong. Right now, they weren't much use to him since Dancer was not ready to fly. When he did try at the end of the summer, he would be in for a surprise. Once again, he would find his feet of more use than his wings.

Occasionally the sky darkened from the west. Black storm clouds spilled sheets of rain, thunder boomed, and lightning stabbed the mountaintops and sometimes sliced into the lake itself. Dancer came to know the heavy stillness in the air before a storm. But late one day, the wind became especially gusty, unable to make up its mind which direction to take. The water broke into choppy waves. The grebes rode the peaks and valleys.

Below the surface, all was calm. Dancer dove close to his parents. When he popped back up several minutes later, the wind pushed so hard at his body that his feet could not hold him in place. The sullen sky pelted him with Ping-Pong balls of hail and battered him with wind-driven spray. He dived repeatedly to escape the assault.

On the surface, he was swept helplessly toward the western side of the bay. The wind drove him, like a toy sailboat, underneath the railway trestle into a shallow area he usually avoided. Now it was crowded with dozens of grebes, ducks, geese, and floating debris. An overturned canoe thumped against the trestle supports.

Dancer and the others could do nothing but float low in the water and ride out the tempest.

Once the storm's fury was spent, the sky cleared, and stars winked peacefully against the curtain of dusk. The waterfowl moved to the safety of open water to settle for the night. The tattered remnants of nests and uprooted reeds drifted and gradually sank.

August arrived, hot and still. The air prickled with electricity and held a strange, acrid smell. In the hills to the west of the town, slender columns of smoke curled upward. The night before, lightning strikes had sparked the tops of several beetle-killed Douglas firs. Newborn flames gobbled the fuel and sniffed around for more, growing larger with each meal. In no time, the fire whipped up its own wind and leaped from treetop to treetop. Smoke began to drift over the town and hang above the lake. The grebes floated among bits of wood ash while their world grew breathless.

A loud droning in the sky made Dancer nervous. Echoes bounced off the hills. A gigantic, winged shape descended toward the lake through the smoky haze, skimmed along the surface, and then lifted off again, water streaming from it. The grebes edged closer to the shore. The rumbling faded for a time, and the birds returned to feeding. But the flying monster reappeared, over and over, swallowing enormous amounts of water as if its thirst could not be quenched. For three days it continued, pausing at nightfall or when the smoke from the forest fire blotted out the sky. Then the huge craft sat like a crouching cat on the lake, waiting. A second water bomber joined the first, and their engine noise ruled the valley.

On the fourth evening, a sudden puff of wind skittered across the water, first bouncing up ripples, then carving larger waves. Bruised clouds sped eastward. Up on the hills, crimson fingers of fire reached for them. Flames took giant leaps, flaring up ever closer to the town.

Driven by the rising wind, Dancer and his parents found themselves in midlake, unable to see far through the dense smoke that blanketed the valley. The young grebe felt vibrations in the air and a looming presence above him. He barely had time to dive before a water bomber sliced the water above him. The force of its impact pushed him down, deeper than he'd ever dived. Dancer reeled and pumped with his feet, trying to regain his balance. He moved at last into calmer water and pushed hard for the surface. He was running out of air.

The instant he surfaced, the second bomber dropped out of the smoke cloud, making its belly-flop landing on the water. Dancer dove without the chance to fill his lungs to capacity, tossed about once again in the churning bubbles. He was forced to surface before the wake from the airplane had settled. He was bumped and buffeted, shaken and shocked. The blows left him dizzy and disoriented. Gradually, calm returned. The bombers were still, the smoke thick and choking. Dancer was alone. He drifted all night, unable to locate his parents.

Just when it seemed the town would be lost, the wind turned coward, shifted, then tailed off. The fire would not die out completely until the first winter snow smothered the high ground, but at last it was tamed. By dawn, the smoke layer began to lift, and Dancer spotted a cluster of grebes near the north shore, away from the worst of the commotion.

Among them were his parents, and he swam to rejoin them.

The sharp smell of burning lingered in the air until the fall rains arrived to wash it away. By then, it was time for the grebes' migration to the coast. Full-grown now, Dancer began to stretch and exercise his wings. At first, it seemed no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't lift his heavy body from the water. Then he found the answer—it involved his feet! The trick to becoming airborne was to run, paddling as hard as he could. If he gained enough speed across the surface of the lake, the flapping of his half-sized wings would take him aloft. Flying was the only way to reach the wintering grounds along the seacoast.

When frost decorated the charred remains of the forest, Dancer left the lake. He flew an ancient route, guided by instinct or perhaps by the moon and stars. Off the west coast of North America, with thousands of his kind, he would spend the winter months fishing in salt water. Two years would pass before a mature Dancer returned to this stage among the mountains, ready to dance the courtship ritual of the western grebe.

By Gillian Richardson

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