The River

The Lower Colorado River was dammed and channelized long ago and beside its lakes and backwaters gambling palaces and communities are growing. In many areas, the river resembles little more than a wide canal with rip-rap lining its edges. There is little left of the wild and unpredictable river once traversed by the likes of John Wesley Powell. Long gone are the muddy red waters of spring that carried soils and nutrients to the Gulf of California. The little bit of wild that is left can be found in popular places like the Grand Canyon or little known areas such as Topock Gorge. People, primarily from Phoenix and Los Angeles, come to the river throughout the summer months in search of recreation. Jet skis and motor boats roar up and down the cool green stretches of the river and pontoon boats drift along through the crowds. It seems that within the hubbub and noise of summer crowds there would be little room left for wildlife or for any quality wildlife experience. But the river still provides refuge to many year-round and wintering wildlife species as well as rest and feeding stops for migrants in the fall and spring. To protect wildlife on or near the river, there are four national wildlife refuges operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service; Havasu, Bill Williams River, Cibola and Imperial.

It had rained the night before and the air was lightly scented with freshly washed creosote, damp earth and the watery smell of the river. I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt and felt chilled as I pulled the eighteen-foot Boston Whaler out of the marina onto the main channel. The rain and the still present clouds had cooled the desert significantly. I relished the chill, knowing it would not last long. The heat of a July summer day, along the edge of the Mojave Desert, would quickly dissipate the coolness and evaporate the clouds. It was just after six in the morning, too early for the tourists to be out raising wakes. The river looked like smooth, green glass and the bow of the boat cut a crisp, white wake through its depths. The river was empty except an occasional angler in a john-boat fishing in the shadows of the shrubby shorelines and red rock canyons.

I turned south to enter Topock Gorge and finish a western and Clark's grebe nest survey I had begun the day before. Western and Clark's grebes are graceful water birds with black and white plumage, golden, rapier-like beaks and startling, ruby-red eyes. They are best known for their behavior while courting and mating. The birds position themselves side by side, bend their necks into graceful curves and repeatedly dip their heads up and down. They fill their beaks with soggy plant life and, pointing their beaks upward, seem to offer the vegetation to each other. This display is continued until, it seems, passion overcomes them and the pair of birds raise their breasts out of the water and run across the surface side by side. The synchronized run is ended with a simultaneous dive into the water. When the birds emerge from the water, they appear somewhat dazed and confused. They call out with shrill “screes” and rejoin each other to begin the courtship anew. The run, or "dance" as some people call it, is possible because of the placement of the birds feet far back on their bodies which is ideal for swimming and quick propulsion under water.

A small population of grebes lives on Lake Havasu and even smaller numbers reside up and down the river. During the summer, their breeding season, they build floating nests between cattails and bulrush or out in the open on "rafts" of submerged vegetation. To locate and count the nests, I steer the boat, below wake speed, into a backwater and slowly search the open water and cattails. Wave action can either break the fragile nests apart or wash eggs into the water. If a nest or eggs are lost, the adult grebes usually do not nest again for the year.

On my way down the river, I made a quick stop near a bend in the river called Devil's Elbow. The Elbow was created during an ancient volcanic occurrence that created upheavals of molten rock and ash. These rock formations caused the river to drastically alter its course. Today, the flow of the river is bent and constricted causing a swift current to flow between red, clay colored cliffs. The color of the cliffs heightens the crystalline, green hue of the river. Sometimes, early in the morning, a few bighorn sheep can be found in the Elbow near the edge of the water. They come down to drink their fill before humans begin to intrude and crowd the waterways. As I brought the boat to a stop, I spotted three sheep high on the rocky face of a cliff. Scanning with my binoculars, I located five more sheep a few feet above the water line. Three of them had stopped to watch me, the others were feeding on stunted plants growing from the rocks. I observed them for a short time and marveled at the expert way in which they walked along the steep escarpment.

While scanning the cliffs, I spotted a peregrine falcon sitting on a jagged peak surveying the river. This was not the first time I had seen a peregrine in the Elbow. A pair of them had nested there in the spring and had fledged two young. I remembered a trip I had taken down the river with a colleague of mine. We had shut off the boat motor to stop and look for the birds while we drifted with the current. I was scanning the cliffs above me with binoculars when my colleague whispered "There it is!" An adult peregrine falcon was swooping down over our heads and nearly collided with the water as it attempted to catch an eared grebe! We were astounded at the loud whistling noise its wings made as it descended. The grebe was alert and dove under the water an instant before the falcon reached it. The falcon, without missing a beat, had gracefully arced back up into the air and circled overhead. I wondered if the falcon I was watching today was one of those I had seen earlier in the year.

I restarted the boat motor and continued down the river. Steering into the backwater where I had ended my search the day before, I spotted several pairs of grebes with young on their backs. Young grebes do not remain in the nest after they hatch. The fuzzy, gray youngsters climb onto the back of a parent where it safely hitches a ride for the first few days. The parent folds its wings over the youngster to cradle and protect it. Within a week, the young swim beside the parents but at the first sign of danger they head for the feathery safety of mom or dad. By the time a baby grebe is three weeks old, it is almost entirely on its own. It is too big to climb on its parent's back or fit neatly under a parent's wing. As I continued counting nests, I observed many of the more common bird species that can be found along the river. In abundance were red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, doves, Bullock's orioles, western wood peewees, black phoebes, willow flycatchers, common yellowthroats, canyon and marsh wrens. Here and there I would spot a flock of black-necked stilts or white-faced ibis feeding along the sandbars and shallow areas in the river.

By noon, the river was beginning to echo with the sounds of people and the temperatures were in the 100-teens. I had almost completed the survey so I decided to stop, eat my lunch and watch people for awhile. The blue canopy cover on the boat protected me from the direct glare of the relentless desert sunshine. However, there was no breeze and I soon found myself baking in the convection-like heat of the air trapped under the canopy. I finished my lunch watching people play, swim and stay cool in the 65-degree water. The river water temperatures remain in the mid-sixties throughout most of the summer because the water is released from the bottom of a series of dams. Since I could not cool off with a swim, I decided to get moving again. I quickly finished the survey and called it a day. Moving into the main channel, I picked up speed and headed back to the marina. As the wind cooled my skin and dried the sweat from my clothes, I wondered how many people would stop to notice the wildlife around them today? Would anyone see a falcon, a sheep, a grebe or even a coot that is so common in the area? As I approached the marina and dropped my speed to maneuver into a slip, I thought about the day and everything I had seen. It had been a great day, but for me, most of them are.

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