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Betsy Steele | Honoring ‘Riparius,’ spring birds

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World file photo/Stephen Maher A riparian area along Icicle Gorge Trail in Leavenworth, where lots of spring birds are spotted every year.

Shouldn’t there be a deity named “Riparius”? A god or goddess of the rivers — fluid, changeable, life-giving, moody, tender or powerful, vital: Riparius!

In Greek mythology there are the Potamoi, weird, cow-faced creatures carrying jugs of potable water and there are all sorts of gods for specific waterways.

But we need a great spirit of the flowing inland waters as revered and formidable as Poseidon. The shoreline plants and animals would also fall within the scope of her court.

And in the spring, especially, her magic, verdant beauty and vitality would be worthy of deep reverence.

If I were a pantheist, I would pay special tribute to the broadleaf trees in Riparian’s realm: the alders, dogwoods, willows, cottonwoods, maples and others.

Big leaf maples are magnets for migrating warblers these first few weeks of May. Their new foliage is temporarily dwarfed by cascading racemes of lovely yellow flowers from which the little birds nimbly glean aphids, small caterpillars and other insects. Now and then they hold forth in distinct song, not heard since last year.

These migrants, weighing about half an ounce, have valiantly made the arduous trip from Central and South America and the Caribbean islands, crossing the storm and oil-fraught Gulf, flying at night, touching down wherever suitable habitat remains where they can refuel during the day. Some are back to nest here; others will continue much farther north. The jauntily black-capped but bright yellow Wilson’s warblers are among the longer travelers.

What dull labels these “butterflies of the bird world” have been given — named for a person or place when first documented. So we end up with Audubon’s (okay, not bad), MacGillivray’s, Nashville, orange-crowned (a feature that’s invisible most of the time), Tennessee, Townsend’s, yellow, and the aforementioned Wilson’s. Those are the predominant warbler species that come through our area, nearly always following the river corridors. (Riparius probably has her own, far more poetic descriptors.)

So try this: walk to the top of a conifer-cloaked hill, listen and observe for a while. Then make your way downslope to streamside woodland. More than likely the contrast will be striking: from furtive hushed flight or intermittent call to animated sparkle of sounds and liveliness.

You may encounter a mixed species flock, especially visible and audible at this time of year before the woods are fully leafed out. In fact, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, of the 118 species of neotropical migrant birds that visit and nest here, about 70 depend on riparian habitat. Yet these streamside zones, brimming with life and diversity, are thin ribbons that weave through less than 10 percent of Washington’s total land area.

That small percentage supports much of spring’s avian charm. Plus, the individual birds or their offspring that nest in Riparius’ shelter, return year after year to the same locale. It may be a shrubby patch under an old Hawthorne or tucked into willow branches or a camouflaged tunnel of twiggy dogwood foliage where warblers successfully fledged young ones. So they or their progeny continue to return.

Some may return to feel confused and displaced though. Earlier in the year, people had released livestock to graze; built a bridge or picnic area; or timber project access road; or a motorbike had crashed and burned, igniting the usually fire resistant damp shadiness of streamside vegetation. The patches of loss — permitted or not — add up to a larger irreverence toward Riparius, and cumulative violations mean dwindling numbers and variety of birds.

The annual celebration of birdlife that so many of us feel in the spring should include celebration of rare but powerful Riparius, keeper of essential habitat. Before the month of May has drifted past, sit by the water and absorb that spirit!

Betsy Steele is a former newspaper writer and nature columnist who lives in the Chumstick Valley.

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