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Memories of Coya and a Secret Bathing Place for Birds

Bill Sherwonit

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This past week I remembered the life and passing of my first dog, Coya, a mixed-collie “pound mutt” who found her way into my life when I was in my mid-50s and brought me lots of joy until her death on June 8, 2012. Though I’ve been a “dog person” for as long as I can remember, she was the first I ever called my own; hard to believe that didn’t happen for more than five decades. I now have a second canine companion, another mixed-collie rescue dog, this one named Denali. Like Coya, she loves to explore both Anchorage and the Chugach hills and enriches my life.

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In memory of Coya and to celebrate the summer—and the songbirds that also have greatly enriched the latter half of my life—I’d like to share some early summer musings I wrote a few years back, after one of our walks through Kincaid Park.

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Bright, sunny skies and long hours of daylight have begun to work their magic on Alaska’s largest city. Anchorage’s landscape is now vibrantly green, flowers are blooming, and today’s afternoon temperatures are pushing toward 70 degrees.

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In other words, the day is hot, at least by local standards. It’s also a Sunday. That happy confluence has lured bunches of people to the cooling influence of water, the first time this summer that locals have crowded beaches, lakes, and other waterways.

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Dozens of the city’s sun and water worshipers have chosen to celebrate the day and season at Little Campbell Lake. My companion and I have joined them, but only briefly.

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Rather than a beach party, I prefer the quiet solitude of a leisurely forest hike. But my collie mix, Coya, loves water nearly as much as walking, maybe even more. In this heat she’ll relish a plunge into the lake, so I’ve planned my woodland route accordingly.

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The cold water doesn’t faze Coya and other dogs, but it’s still far too chilly for human swimmers and waders. A few brave souls have dipped their toes and feet into the lake, but that’s as far as anyone goes.

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People recreate in other ways. One couple paddles a canoe, another sprawls inside an inflatable raft. Several people crowd the graying, wooded dock; some dangle feet into the water, others cast shiny spinners for trout. But most of the day’s celebrants mingle on the grassy area that slopes down to the water from a gravel parking lot. One woman stretches out on a blanket, deepening her tan, but she turns now and then to check on her son, skipping stones from the narrow sand beach. Several groups of families and friends have hauled lawn chairs, blankets,  barbecue grills, and baby strollers onto the grass and now they eat, drink, talk and take in the beauty of the day.

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Less than 100 yards of the lakeshore have been made into a manicured beach. The rest remains in a more natural state: marshy and wild. That is the lake front I prefer, inhabited by frogs, shorebirds and nesting loons, and bordered by birch-spruce-cottonwood forest. So after Coya takes her plunge, we leave the beach crowded with humans and return to the woods, following a narrow footpath that parallels the shore.

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Within minutes we’ve reached the far end of the lake, where the woods open up into a broad boggy area. I look for the Pacific loons but they’re nowhere to be seen, perhaps driven into hiding by all the human commotion.

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While I’m peering between the trees, a fluttering motion in a nearby spruce grabs my attention. A closer look through binoculars reveals a bedraggled yellow-rumped warbler, vigorously shaking and preening its soaked, feathered body.

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Aha, I think, this bird too has gone for a dip in the lake.

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It’s not often I see a bathing songbird, so I’m delighted by my good fortune. Instinctively I glance to the shoreline below. There, to my happy surprise, a second bird bath is in progress. This one too a yellow-rump, the male partner of the first (I assume) flicking his wings and splashing in the shallows.

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While I’m watching, another, tinier bird appears. Yellow-rumps are hardly large songbirds; their bodies measure only 5 ½ inches long. But the warbler dwarfs this new arrival. A kinglet, I guess. And he is: a narrow orange patch atop the head bordered by yellow-and-black striping reveals the little guy to be a male golden-crowned kinglet.

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A more fidgety bather, the kinglet barely wets his plumage before streaking off. Perhaps he’ll return later, when he has more privacy.

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A nearby junco isn't nearly as timid. From its spruce perch, the dark gray bird drops into the boggy pool, squats down and then vigorously splashes water all over himself. Returning to his perch, the bird looks disheveled yet content while shaking and preening his body.

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Over the next quarter-hour, several more birds join the communal bathing: a robin, a second junco, a common redpoll, an orange-crowned warbler, and a Swainson’s thrush.

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Whether the birds are taking turns is impossible to say, but no more than two birds ever bathe at one time. Perhaps the others keep watch for danger while awaiting their own chance to clean up?

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The songbirds seem to relish splashing about in this small, protected waterhole every bit as much as Coya and other dogs – and later in the summer, people – enjoy frolicking in the larger lake.  It’s my pleasure, also, to happen upon this secretive spot where more than a half-dozen species of birds have gathered for some bold and frenzied bathing, while ignoring the stares and chuckles of one amazed human onlooker.

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Though likely not understanding what all the fuss is about, Coya has patiently waited nearby. She grins and stands brightly, ready to resume our walk, when it’s clear my watching is finally over. Both of us smiling, we head up the trail, quietly celebrating in our own ways the joys and wonders of this early summer day.

 



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