Category Archives: Cohort 8, Karélia Ver Eecke

The Water Ouzel

Out of the corner of my eye I catch the flit of a dark, buzzing bird flying low over the water of Ashland Creek, just above Lithia Park. I’ve caught the melodic babbling brook song over the breeze (Click here for song and another). I pause, and search the riffles and tops of boulders for my favorite denizen of the sky and water, the Water Ouzel.

The Water Ouzel (ouzel) Cinclus mexicanus, or American Dipper (AMDI, dipper), as it is recognized by the American Ornithologist’s Union, is a small dark bird that lives a relatively secretive life in the Western United States’ clear, fast-flowing mountain waters. Being closely related to the wren family, the ouzel is most easily recognized by its slender insect-picking beak, upright-angled tail, and erratic flitting and foraging.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of this small bird is its prowess in the air and water. Much like me on a tropical vacation, the ouzel spends much of its time with its head underwater, looking for its audubonAMDInext meal (though I’m only a silent observer). American Dippers feed on macroinvertebrates, the aquatic larvae of insects, like the stonefly, mayfly, and caddisfly. This unique ability is facilitated by the AMDI’s transparent nictitating membrane, a protective longitudinal moving extra eyelid; an insect eating wren-like beak; strong legs; long, grasping toe-nails; and short powerful wings. While snorkeling, the ouzel moves along on underwater stones and cobbles, searching for tasty morsels. When satisfied with its gleaning in an area, the ouzel flits upstream or downstream, landing on the occasional mid-stream boulder to sing and call. When just the right riffle has been found, the ouzel returns to its feast.

On the walks that I am lucky enough to spy my favorite bird, I know that I am blessed. Nature reveals its secrets to the patient, brave, and passionate. As I sit and watch what I have now come to call my Water Ouzel, the worries of the day, week, and month drift away. I watch this small being in wonder. Alone on the boulder in the big riffle, the little soul sings its heart out in trills, whistles, and buzzes, then flits to a small riffle and begins searching for a bite to eat. In its little niche, the dipper has found its place. Flying up and down this quieter reach, away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Ashland, this dipper is wild and free.



Poison Oak, the Lurking Plant

Toxicodendron diversilobum. Until October 2015, poison oak was just another plant with the potential of causing minor irritation to me.

Having grown up in Colorado I had trained my eyes to look for stinging nettle and poison ivy, and though I have had many a run in with stinging nettle, it was nothing a little rubbing alcohol couldn’t cure. So when I first began adventuring in the Northwest woods, a stronghold of poison oak, I kept a weary, albeit lazy, eye out for this unfamiliar, lurking nemesis.

Poison oak grows ubiquitously throughout Oregon, west of the Cascades. It is found in the ponderosa shrub forests, amongst the chaparral shrubs, in the shade of the oaks, and along the coast. Its growth fpoisonoakorm ranges from a trailing vine, reaching high for the sun, to a short and
spindly pseudo-shrub, to a robust grouping of groping, poison stems. Poison oak leaves resemble those of oak in their lobed appearance, and one can recall the foreboding “Leaves of three, leave it be” when setting out for a romp in the woods. Spring and summer will present a display of small flowers and white fruits, called drupes. Starting in early fall, bright green leaves begin to turn a sunset orange-red hue and by early November, they have fallen.

A poison oak rash, when it’s bad, is really, really bad. It’s not just an itch. It’s not just a burn. It’s some terrible concoction of the two that begs to be scratched, rubbed, and iced. It makes you moan in agony as you search the depths of your memory for when you got the few drops of the not-so-innocuous oil on your right wrist and left cheekbone.

The oily sap of poison oak, or urushiol, causes mild to severe contact dermatitis on the areas of skin it touches. And much to the chagrin of the outdoor enthusiast, trace amounts of the oil can stay on surfaces for days, weeks, months, even years, waiting for a touch of naked skin. Urushiol is found in all parts of the poison oak plant –living or dead—including leaves, stems, and roots. In fact, when poison oak is burned, the oils volatilize and can cause severe allergic reactions in the lungs of those who inhale the smoke.

Interestingly enough, poison oak is a popular browse for Pacific black-tailed deer and range livestock, as it is rich in phosphorous, calcium, and sulfur, and does not evoke the painful allergic reaction seen in humans. In Native American cultures various parts of the plant were used; both as a basket textile and medicinal herb. Popular American folklore even claims that drinking the milk of a goat that has eaten poison oak will render the drinker immune to the unpleasant consequences of interacting with the plant.

My doctor told me I had very likely picked the oils up from my dog’s fur. And unfortunately, I do not own a milking goat that eats poison oak. After a heavy two week dose of Prednisone and numerous washes with Tecnu©, my face and wrist were home free, but my mind remains a prisoner of this plant.

Yet, like we all must, I continue the trek into the unknown. I do my best to keep an eye out for this formidable plant, but am reminded that even the best intentions can still procure unwanted results. In my quest to make meaning out of all things unfortunate, here is what I learned from poison oak: be grateful for the health you have, because even a few small drops of oil can temporarily take it from you; be patient, even the greatest temptations, like scratching, are sometimes best left alone; and finally, love those that love you for you, because only true love can still kiss someone with puffy, splotchy eyelids and a red, swollen cheek.