Ribbon of Life Series
By Rachel Haymon
The clean, cold, cascading water of the White Salmon River, flowing from Mount Adams glaciers and pristine springs to the Columbia River, supports and attracts a tremendous diversity of flora and fauna. It is the pulsing heart of our local ecosystems. FWSR’s “Ribbon of Life” blog series highlights eyewitness accounts and images of the many delightful species who rely upon the remarkable qualities of the White Salmon River.
Posting #1: The American Dipper
Above the rushing sound of foaming whitewater, high-pitched whistles and trills rise from the White Salmon River into the cool morning air. Suddenly, one of the many small grey lava rocks protruding above the water’s surface in midstream unexpectedly moves and mysteriously disappears beneath the surface of the icy water. After several moments, an American Dipper (also called “water ouzel”) pops up in a small pool at the water’s edge and hops onto the dry surface of a tall rock. It takes a bow, followed by another, and then another, dipping up and down repeatedly before settling down to preen its dark bluish-grey plumage. This amazing swimming songbird forages on aquatic insects, larvae, small fish, tadpoles, crayfish, and fish eggs by diving, swimming, and wading through the swift water, utterly undaunted by frigid strong currents. The Dipper lowers a clear membrane over its eyes to see underwater, seals water out of its nostrils with scales, and navigates using eddies and backflows to its advantage. There it sits, on a rock that formed tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago from cooling magma flows on Mount Adams, warming up and grooming its “dry suit” of feathers into perfect well-oiled condition, as needed to insulate the Dipper from the freezing waters. After ten minutes, it flies low over the water to another rock downstream, and then dives back into the river to continue its hunt for food. The American Dipper, while declining across the West from poor land management practices that have caused habitat degradation and loss, pollution, and riverbank erosion, is still thriving in the White Salmon River! A joy to see!
Posting #2: Harlequin Ducks
Photo by Wendy Reif
Sun sparkles on the tumbling river, and flashes of light and foam bounce energetically downstream between grey lava boulders on a warm August day. Near the river’s edge below, bobbing white spots appear, meandering upstream against the current. Moments later, downy forms of ducks, colored grey like the rocks and sporting white spots on their heads, come into focus– it’s a female Harlequin Duck followed by four of her babies! Harlequin Ducks spend most of their lives amid turbulent surf along rocky coasts at high northern latitudes, but in springtime they migrate inland to nest on the shores of clean, cold rushing streams like the White Salmon River.
A female will lead her mate back to the same natal stream where the female was born. After mating in April-May, the highly colorful male, whose garish plumage inspires the name “Harlequin,” returns to the pounding seashore, while the female stays to hatch and raise her ducklings. These four ducklings seen making their way upstream today are nearly as big as their Mom now, and probably hatched in June. Foraging as they go, the ducks repeatedly dive below the surface, pop up like corks, and then dive again to feed. They are seeking small fish, invertebrates, fish eggs, and insects.
Mom climbs out onto a large boulder, and soon all the young ones follow. They preen the water from their feathers with their bills, snuggle together in a soft heap, tuck their heads under their wings, and take a nice nap while warming up on the sun-heated rock. After twenty minutes of rest, Mom raises her head, stands, shakes her feathers into place so that her insulating plumage will keep her dry and warm in the glacial river, and hops back into the water to continue foraging upstream. One by one, the ducklings follow.
Later in August, a group of four ducks flies low over the river, heading downstream. These are the same ducklings who have now fledged and are becoming more independent. In the fall they will accompany their mom back to the Columbia River, and onward to the seacoast for the winter. We will hope to see Mom back on the White Salmon River with a new brood of ducklings next year. Her daughters from the summer of 2020 will be mature enough to return here and have broods of their own by the summer of 2022. As long as the White Salmon River remains the way it is today—cold, fast-flowing, and unpolluted by toxins and silt— these amazingly hardy ducks will return and thrive, and we will rejoice to see them!
Posting #3: The American Mink
Photo by Wendy Reif
What’s that sound? Several staccato shrieks pierce through the rushing roar of the White Salmon River. Is it a bird? No! A slim, brown, four-footed mammal abruptly springs from the river onto the top of the tallest boulder in the stream. It’s a mink! The mink faces downstream, stares at the opposite shore, and screams again in alarm. A large black dog pushes through the greenery on the far bank, and then wades into the shallows at the river’s edge, barking frantically all the while at the mink. Instantly, the mink dives back into the torrent. Its small dark head emerges as the river sweeps it downstream, past the dog and danger. The mink knows that the dog cannot follow. Lucky for the dog! Minks are ferocious carnivores, akin to weasels, and though they weigh no more than 3 pounds, they can put up a fierce fight when attacked. They are accomplished swimmers, divers, and climbers who hunt their prey by sight in the water and on land. In the White Salmon River, mink feed on crayfish, fish, amphibians, and invertebrates. In the riparian vegetation fringing the river, they hunt mice, shrews, rats, squirrels, rabbits, frogs, snakes, lizards, skinks, birds and eggs.
Minks are mostly nocturnal, they forage under cover of vegetation, and they rest out-of-sight within burrows and cavities that are underground, inside logs and logjams, and up in trees. For all these reasons, it is not often that we get to see them. This time we have the dog to thank for our unexpected sighting.
Even when we don’t see the mink, we find its tracks in the wet silt along the riverbank, and visualize what it is doing as it makes its way along the shore.
In winter, when streamside vegetation is sparse and the dark fur of the mink stands out against the white snow on the ground, we have a better chance to spot them in the daytime, though they are less active at this cold time of year.
Wild mink are on the decline in the U.S., so we are happy to see them thriving along the White Salmon River!