Crows. Today is all about this murder of crows that follow us down the beach. They exploded in the air when we moved out the forest and then settled just fifty feet down the trail we have to follow. The corvid leapfrog game continued until the trail took us back into the woods. If they weren’t crows, I would wonder if they were leading us away from their nests. But, crows are fully capable of doing complex things just for the laughs.
For the second time a northern harrier flew close over my head after crossing the Eagle River. The first time, when the river was full of spawned out silver salmon, the sleekly built owl flew toward me, allowing plenty of opportunity to watch its approach. Today, I caught it out of the corner of my eye and just managed to take one photograph as it climbed to hunting height. Both times I was amazed at the far-forward position of the bird’s wing.
Minutes after the harrier drifted behind a big cottonwood tree, a tight formation of Canada geese flew over my little dog and I. In an explosion of noise the geese broke formation. Seconds later a bald eagle climbed back up to its hunting height.
I’ve seen peregrine falcons knock pigeons out of the sky over Downtown Juneau but never even heard of an eagle hunting like that. In spite of their size, the raptors seem most comfortable using their fierce beak and talons to tear meat from carcasses. They aren’t brave. I once saw a tiny arctic tern chase an eagle away from the tern’s nesting colony by pulling at its tail feathers. But, it is famine time for the big birds, when they have to get creative to eat. As I write this, an eagle flies circles over Chicken Ridge and I wonder if tonight, some neighbor will be missing their cat.
There are some things a gray-haired person should not do on a spring morning. Reading Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees,” with its reminder that lost years will not come again, is one of them. While I read the poem gentle rain washed a winter’s accumulation of dust from Chicken Ridge and irrigated the budding lilacs.
Out of on the moraine with the little dog, I did another unwise thing—locked eyes with a Steller jay. Rather than fly to high branch to scold us, the jay settled on a low spruce branch and turned sideways so its eye could bore in on my face. The hard, black marble of the eye reflected no kindness, just scrutiny. Feeling measured and found lacking, I let Aki lead me to the little cashew shaped lake where the glacier seems to rise about a strip of forest. Two mallards and a bufflehead family move slowly down lake from us. But one of the bufflehead young, still in tan and chestnut swung past us. Aki didn’t abuse this trust by charging into the lake. I locked eyes with the young duck and saw defiance, not fear, realized what a poor judge I am of the facial expressions of birds.
A rock fall draws our attention. The little dog sniffs and stares. I follow her gaze and spot two mountain goats just above us on the flank of Mt. Juneau. I’d seen at least six other goats on this hike along Gold Creek. All were too far above us to be more than moving white dots. These two are close enough to watch, to appreciate a little of their personalities. The one following moved slowly, carefully lifting it’s front legs over deadfalls and rocks. It was hard to imagine this goat gracefully transiting a rock face like I’d seen them do often.
Along the creek, it looks like early summer. Tiny yellow violets are flowering. Elderberry plants, willows, and balsam poplars show fresh green growth. The later smell like the balsam incense for which they are named. Even the conservative devil club plants are leafing out. Yet the goats climb away from all this lush new growth.
Aki and return to the North Douglas trail head and, thankfully, find it empty of cars. Ten minutes into the beachside forest, I realize that my boots are the nosiest things in the woods. No airplane, boat, or car noise reaches us. We can hear a cranky set of Stellar jays and the long trill of a thrush. A goose calls out in panic and flies over our heads. The solitude is not appreciated by my little dog, who loves company of all kinds. She must settle for the smells of scent left by dogs who passed through here yesterday.
With the uneasiness I always feel when walking over exposed tidelands, I lead Aki onto a flat, sandy plain dotted with shallow tide pools. She hangs back, like she knows in a few hours almost twenty feet of water will cover the ground where we walk. In minutes we are on the now-exposed causeway that offers a dry path to Shaman Island. A large murder of crows stirs on a rocky point at the end of the causeway and breaks into the trees in the interior of the island. Two bald eagles roost in trees on the edge of the island. Another eagle, bound from Admiralty Island, joins them.
A small raft of harlequin ducks swims away as if to distract us from a small family of their kind that remain huddled against the point. Near the family an orange beaked oystercatcher whistles as if to attract our attention away from its nest. Aki and I wander around the tiny island and start back across the causeway. The crows abandon their island hideout and land in front of us on the trail. When we get within forty feet of them, they burst in the air in a big noisy show and circle back to join the harlequin family and the oystercatcher on the rocky point. A flock of gulls drops in to join them. All will be happy when the tide buries the causeway.
I should have known better than choose a North Douglas trail for today’s walk. On this Sunday afternoon with a lot of visitors in town for the folk festival, the attraction of a minus 3.5 foot tide has filled the trailhead parking areas to overflowing. Even the waters Fritz Cove are crowded with boats targeting feeder king salmon. Trying to ignore my whinny little dog, I head to a trail unaffected by tides.
I expected to find the parking lot for this mountain meadow trail empty but every space but one is taken. Men with hunting dogs and shotguns wander toward the trees where grouse have been know to roost. It’s too late for the snow and too early for muskeg wildflowers but Aki has the dogs to distract her. I am drawn to small islands of beauty things like skunk cabbage and the bleached grain of standing-dead pines. The yellow skunk cabbage flowers provide the only vibrant color on the meadow until I spot the splash of red from the exposed breast of an American robin. Otherwise it is a soft, gray day that offers silence until the first hunter fires.
As if forced away by music, the clouds always abandon Juneau on the Saturday of folk festival week. This surprised the weatherman, who had predicted a continuation of the wet weather that plagued Southeast Alaska for a week. Aki doesn’t know that a bath awaits her when we return home from this trip to the wetlands. In minutes she manages to coat her fur with estuary mud then prances around like a perfumed starlet. With the tide out, the birds are out feeding on the mudflats. Two eagles do fly over, chasing each other toward the glacier. They disappear, leaving the skies empty except a song sparrow that settles onto a drift wood root wad and sings of spring.
Thanks to a book I am reading, Eating Stone by Ellen Meloy, I am a little obsessed with our local mountain goats. (Oreamnos americanus). Meloy’s book is about desert bighorn sheep but her descriptions of them in Eating Stone makes me think about the Juneau goats. There should be a clutch of them grazing on the rock slopes near the glacier so Aki and I heading toward Nugget Falls to spy on them. I stop often to photograph the myriad of icebergs that now litter to surface of Mendenhall Lake. You’d expect them to make the best models but I found them outclassed by willow catkins. Even though rain-soaked and already going to seed, they look like complex alien fruit.
The goats are a no show but on our return to the car we run into a beautiful toddler enjoying her rubber boots, yellow slicker, and red umbrella. She entertains herself with a little umbrella dance until Aki barks. Then she stands at attention next her family’s yellow retriever and laughs at my little poodle-mix.
Reunited after two weeks, the little dog and I wander one of the familiar trails near the northern tip of Douglas Island. It must be spring. The shrill twill of a varied thrust greets us at the edge of the woods. Almost all the forest plants have committed to the change of seasons. The blueberry and huckleberry bushes are green with new growth. Beach side alders redden with new leaves. Only the thorny devil’s club plants refuse to throw in. They stand like snarled, naked souls condemned at the final judgment.
Just off the beach, wide rafts of Barrow golden eye ducks and surf scoters hunt for baitfish and I wonder if the early appearance of spring convinced the silver salmon smolt to leave nearby Peterson Creek for the salt water. When a harbor seal surfaces among the golden eye ducks they move into shallow waters. The more numerous scoters, with their clownish orange, white and black beaks, edge out to sea. Every few seconds one bursts into a short-lived flight. Their Three Stooges-like flight song is the last thing we hear before returning to the woods.