Summer birding can be mighty fine on Morgan Lake, a few miles above La Grande, Oregon. No binoculars required. Simply pump up an air mattress, slip it off the dock and climb on board – unsteadily. Next, add my friend Wes beside me. We lie on our backs looking up at a blue sky with a hint of trouble clouds, and let the wind take us.
A bald eagle glides into view on wings as steady as wooden planks. The luster of white head and tail shine like the fine day it is, except for those clouds and that distant rumble. Double-crested cormorants swim by like nature’s regatta–their long black necks elegant and their course across the water steady.
We soak in the sun, feel the coolness of water seeping over our bellies and listen to one favorite refrain–the drawn out chittering phrase of a kingfisher perched somewhere on the shore lined with ponderosas, Douglas firs, aspen, cottonwoods and alders.
Clouds build. Distant thunder interrupts the idyllic drift. The storm clouds approach from the southeast, but a wind pushes us into them from the opposite direction. Our clumsy mattress is no longer drifting. We’re propelled toward the far shore at a surprising clip. Still, we let the day have its will.
And then it happens. We’re so close to the shore that we push ourselves off from submerged roots. We’re so close to birds that we’ve become them. The cedar waxwings caress the air so near that we could reach up and catch their flying beauty. The air is filled with their high-pitched seet seet seet calls. They perch on upturned roots, and bushes within a few feet. No fear.
Have you ever looked a waxwing in its eye? Checked out the black masked sorcery? Fell under the spell of these sleek birds of cedar, yellow, a dash for scarlet, and tails dipped in nature’s brightest yellow?
Thunder grows more ominous. Waves rumple. Clouds block the sun. Yet, still Wes and I lie there mesmerized by the spell of this flock of birds sizzling with desire. They whiz by our upturned noses, nudge up on willow branches, and tell us what it is to live their life, to fly in precision formation like schools of fishes in the sea, to cloak entire berry trees in feathered feasting frenzy, and always to fly for flying’s sake.
Then, the next strange weather phenomenon happens. The lake calms. The wind shifts in our favor. Even with the day turning to storm, we can paddle our way one-armed back along the banks to our waiting floating dock. Staying close to the shore, the waxwings continue their aerial overhead dashes. And now, we are watching more birds oblivious to us, like the lone spotted sandpiper bobbing up and down on a patch of sand among the rocks.
Life among birds and lake and shore becomes a union of aspen leaf tremor, of fir and pine brush-stroking the blue-black clouds; of the realm of fishes we cannot see in the cooling waters lapping over us; and always of waxwings keening those one syllable words of see! see! see!
At last, the gift of gentling winds and steady one-handed paddling steers us to the floating dock. We step out just as the rain falls. Safe from the incoming storm. Shivering with all that it is to see this way on an easy summer day on Morgan Lake.