Sunday, July 11, 2010

White Bird

My week began and ended with something uncommon. I saw a Great White Egret (Ardea alba) at two different locations. These coastal residents are occasional visitors to the rivers and lakes of the Smokies. I was already aware of that fact, although their appearance was a great surprise to me.

I haven't photographed one here in the mountains, but did find this cooperative egret at Sunset Beach.

The White Egret is closely related to, and almost as large as, the Great Blue Heron – a much more familiar bird in this neck of the woods.

Monday’s Egret rose from a pond covered with lotus in full bloom. The slow and deliberate action of its wings lifted the bird higher and higher, pure whiteness in contrast to the July green of the mountainsides at the head of Cowee Valley. As the Egret made a steady sweep around the valley, I tried imagine the bird’s-eye view of floating gardens on several acres next to Shepherd Creek. I watched the Egret’s graceful flight until it disappeared behind a distant row of trees.

Friday’s Egret was just down the road from here in a pasture near a small pond. Gleaming white, the Egret stood motionless.

Was it the same Egret both times? Will it stay for a while? Will some more Egret companions arrive here, too?

In the past couple of weeks I’ve heard that a Cattle Egret, also uncommon in this area, was spending time on the Tuckasegee River upstream from Cullowhee.

Egrets, herons and bitterns fly with the neck retracted, distinguishing them from storks, cranes, ibises and spoonbills. This might be useful to remember, the next time large white birds appear beside some mountain waterway.

A Great Blue Heron on the Tuckasegee. Hiding behind some bushes, I managed to get this shot of a camera-shy bird.

I'm still pondering over other white birds I've seen. While building my house ten years ago, I saw an unusually approachable bird that resembled a quail but was pure white. It was here for two days and then I never saw it again. I still wonder about a white bird, no larger than a robin, that I glimpsed on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Bear Pen Gap, for a split-second. An errant Snow Bunting, perhaps?

Over the centuries, white birds have symbolized divine guidance and they have also been portents of death.

At least one white bird turned black, according to an ancient story told on the Queen Charlotte Islands of the Pacific Northwest. The Raven changed colors when it helped to bring the Sun, Moon, Stars, Fresh Water, and Fire to the world:

Long ago, near the beginning of the world, Gray Eagle was the guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars, of fresh water, and of fire. Gray Eagle hated people so much that he kept these things hidden. People lived in darkness, without fire and without fresh water.

Gray Eagle had a beautiful daughter, and Raven fell in love with her. In the beginning, Raven was a snow-white bird, and as a such, he pleased Gray Eagle's daughter. She invited him to her father's longhouse.

When Raven saw the Sun, Moon and stars, and fresh water hanging on the sides of Eagle's lodge, he knew what he should do. He watched for his chance to seize them when no one was looking. He stole all of them, and a brand of fire also, and flew out of the longhouse through the smoke hole.

As soon as Raven got outside he hung the Sun up in the sky. It made so much light that he was able to fly far out to an island in the middle of the ocean. When the Sun set, he fastened the Moon up in the sky and hung the stars around in different places. By this new light he kept on flying, carrying with him the fresh water and the brand of fire he had stolen.

He flew back over the land. When he had reached the right place, he dropped all the water he had stolen. It fell to the ground and there became the source of all the fresh-water streams and lakes in the world. Then Raven flew on, holding the brand of fire in his bill. The smoke from the fire blew back over his white feathers and made them black.

When his bill began to burn, he had to drop the firebrand. It struck rocks and hid itself within them. That is why, if you strike two stones together, sparks of fire will drop out.

Raven's feathers never became white again after they were blackened by the smoke from the firebrand. That is why Raven is now a black bird.

[Source - Ella E Clark, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, University of California Press, 1953.]

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