Neighbors and I were trudging along the beach – they in high boots, so they could walk the wet edge, myself in low boots, so I was breaking trail – when we found this little girl huddled in the snow.
That's a female Townsend's Warbler (or so we think).
They thought she was pretty cute, being so friendly. I recognized a lowered core temperature and disorientation when I saw it. That poor little thing couldn't see any landmarks and was very probably waiting for the sun to provide her some way of orienting for direction. Her insides were heading for freezing and the tiny computer in her head couldn't get her back to the woods. If she'd lifted off in the wind in her weakened state, she would have probably just been puffed into the cold, slate-colored water of the Clallam bay. Loons, mergansers, grebes, buffleheads and goldeneyes were swimming nearby, feasting on fish, but their living room would have been the warbler's deathtrap.
The Townsend's Warbler isn't usual to this area in the winter, except for a small, local population in the lowlands, where we seldom have harsh weather. It's a bird of the upper stories of conifer woods, and to this little female this expanse of snow-covered beach might as well have been the Sahara desert. I knew it would be terrifying to her for me to approach her at predator speed, so I crept up on her. She must have read my dark legs as “tree,” for she flew up and gripped a fold in my pant-leg.
I reached slowly down, hoping not to spook her, but she flew desperately to the next thing she recognized as a tree – one of my fellow walker's wool hat. The woman laughed and backed away; you have to admit that having a wild animal landing on your head isn't an everyday experience, and most of us would shriek and try to duck away. The bird fluttered back to the snow.
At this point the warbler was so exhausted – and probably confused -- she couldn't prevent me from catching her. I managed to lower my wool-gloved hands to the snow and slowly enclosed her; she helped by crawling into my right hand. Not from recognition that I was kind or safe or perhaps even a living thing – I was larger than a dinosaur to her – but from the attraction of warmth.
I couldn't take any more photos; I had both hands carefully cupped around the motionless bird, and I had a long trudge back up to the roadside bushes. There were logs and ditches in the way, so I had to take it slow, so I wouldn't fall and crush her. I could see her little bright eye peeping out from under my left forefinger, watching where we were headed.
Up on the road, I looked around for a shelter. The best shelter – a short, fat Douglas Fir, little larger than a bush, was already the obvious property of a pair of fat Dark-Eyed Juncos. The frozen fuchsias in another front yard were full of snow and frankly uninviting. They were too low to protect the bird from dogs, including the large yellow lab – Willie – who was happily romping along, obviously hoping I'd throw whatever I had in my hands for her to fetch.
Then I saw the ragged bushes under a neighbor's house: part salal, part wind-wrenched scraggy hemlock, part ivy, forming a small cave in the mass of foliage. The bushes were further sheltered by a small grove of Douglas Fir. They looked as though they had old leaves, rotten buds and probably tasty bugs in them. Ivy has berries. The Townsend Warbler eats insects, but insects eat everything else.
As we all approached the bushes, the warbler had begun to respond to the warmth, and she began to wriggle and chirp. When I gently thrust my hands into the cavity among the branches, the bird hopped out of my hands and onto one of the internal twigs, and bounced out of sight in the foliage.
The neighbor asked me what I was doing, and when I told her, she said, “You're kind.”
I said, “No, the spirits are watching. If I walked by a fellow creature and let it suffer, they'd let the same thing happen to me.”
I've seen karma come around too many times not to help when I'm asked to. It's not kindness. It's self-preservation.