I am not as disappointed with today’s rain as this miserable looking bald eagle. It has perched itself on a rise of gravel just feet from the edge of Lynn Canal. its hunched posture and rain soaked feathers make it look miserable. Worse, the eagle is going through the transition into adulthood so splotches of white feathers pock its chestnut chest like acne on a teenager’s face. Behind it, Canada geese, mallards, and gulls, unfazed by the weather, patrol the water offshore for food.
Only the lower flanks of the Chilkat Mountains show beneath the marine layer. Perhaps the eagle misses his mountain view. The water birds look as comfortable as tourists on a hot Rivera beach. They don’t need fancy raincoats or even hats. The eagle’s mood might be enhanced by a little something from Patagonia.
We have just walked down Eagle River and across exposed tidal flats to the canal, passing a drake Bufflehead duck and two hens. The drake did a barrel roll while the ladies watched. The little dog and I have seen ducks plop forward in a dive or plunge their heads straight into the water until their feet and tail feathers are sticking straight into the air. We have never seen one roll over and over while in the water. Is this an innovation spawned by love?
When we reach the border of the Treadwell Woods and Sandy Beach Aki leaps onto the sand and charges up to a brace of Bernese mountain dogs. The dogs and their masters are kind so I am not worried. Aki squeals and runs circles around the big dogs trying to entice them into a game of tag. They stand like stunned statutes rather than accept my little poodle-mix’s invitation.
Fifty meters away an adult bald eagle watches the show from atop the old mine ventilation shaft. A minus ebb tide has exposed much of the beach and emptied the little moat that usually isolates the ventilation shaft from the rest of the breach. I expect the eagle to fly off when the little dog and I approach. But it just looks down with apparent distain on its face. Its mate roosts nearby on a barnacle-covered anchor. Even though the anchored bird is more exposed than the one on the ventilation shaft, it shows even less interest in me.
After watching the eagles for a moment I look down, expecting to see Aki giving me a bored look. The little dog is twenty meters away standing near driftwood that would offer her a hiding place if things went bad with the eagles.
We walk parallel courses down the beach until forced to return to the woods by the little cove formed by the collapse of a mining tunnel. While watching a golden eye hen launching itself into a dive, Aki appears at my feet. She gives me one of her “you are not going to do something stupid” looks, like she thinks I am going to try to cross the deep cove. No trust, little dog, no trust.
I feel like Ulysses, Aki—Joyce’s Bloom, not Homer’s hero. The poodle-mix, who has never shown any interest in literature, ignores me. Two rambunctious Labrador retrievers, rather than the Cyclops force us to take a more circuitous route to the mouth of Fish Creek, sending us on an extended odyssey.
Our slow road takes us past a huge beaver dam and around a small, landlocked pond. Two bufflehead ducks and a tiny raft of mallards paddle nervously across the pond’s surface. One of the beavers pops up and crash dives when I look in its direction. Overhead two kingfishers battle for ownership of the pond. The victorious kingfisher roosts on a limb in the grove of dead spruce trees that surround the beaver’s den.
After circumnavigating the kingfisher’s pond, we take the proper path around Fish Creek pond and down to the creek mouth. Hundreds of mallards loaf on the beach and nearby waters. Near the little dog and I, a semipalmated plover darts from rock to rock and then takes flight. Since my attention is on the little plover, I miss an eagle’s attempt to snatch a mallard from the creek mouth. The predator only manages to flush the mallards into flight. In seconds the ducks form a tight cloud that twists and turns in the air over the creek like a school of mackerel. Seconds later, the mallards are back at the creek mouth listening to the eagle’s lament.
A harsh, almost equatorial sunlight bounced off the surface of the Treadwell glory hole. I tried to stare across that bay formed by the collapse of a mine tunnel, hoping to spot the belted kingfisher that was squawking out his territorial claim. Above and close, an unseen bald eagle screamed. After checking to make sure Aki was close and safe I spoted the eagle tucked into a crotch of prickly spruce branches. I wondered for the hundredth time at the fierce aggressiveness of the tiny kingfishers and the apparent cowardness of the powerful eagles.
Earlier, just after Aki and I dropped onto Sandy Beach from the Treadwell woods, three kingfishers dog fought over Gastineau Channel, their chitterling calls as rapid as machine gun fire. A bald eagle roosting on top of the old mine ventilation shaft watched without concern. Perhaps the eagle knew it was not the kingfisher’s target.
Other birds made low flights over the little dog and I today. Early morning sun lit up the white patches on Canada geese as their “V” shaped formation moved toward the Mendenhall wetlands. Minutes later we watched the underside of a great blue heron as it flew close to my head, looking more dinosaur than bird.
Aki stops twenty feet behind me. A few days ago she would have been standing on ice. But that is gone, melted by the string of warm, sunny days that followed our last visit. “Why,” she seems to be saying, “are we back on the Fish Creek Delta?” If she were a human, I’d explain my intent to make many visits here so we can take an informal bird census. Because she would be that kind of human, she would press me until I admitted that I’d take any excuse to return to the rich and beautiful place.
I was pleased to find the trailhead parking lot empty when we arrived. As if to confirm that we were the day’s first human visitors, two braces of mallard ducks rested on a pond right next to the trail. They paddled without haste to edge of the pond and stepped onto the meadow grass.
The ebb tide provided ducks with exposed grassland for resting. A small raft of mallards slept on a nearby patch of grass, their necks buried into their back feathers. Another gathering of their cousins walked the shallows along the Fritz Cove beach, their heads plunged into the water. They ignored a gang of American Widgeons that splash down onto nearby water after being spooked by an eagle.
The still-hungry eagle screeched out a complaint and flew into the top of a beachside spruce. It clamped its talons tight around the springy branch, hunched its shoulders, and held on like a rodeo bull rider as the branch bounced up and down. After the movement stopped, the eagle raised its beak into the air and announced victory.
The mallards are still here, settled in along the banks of Fish Creek. But the widgeons that we watched last week are gone. I can’t find one, nor can I spot a green wing teal. Those transients must have moved north. Other migrants has arrived.
A pair of American robins try to decoy us down the trail. It is too early in the spring for their rich nesting songs. Today we will only hear discordant birds songs: crow grumbles, the harsh threats of Stellar’s jays, and screams of frustration from touchy eagles.
Two half-foot slabs of pond ice still lay athwart the trail. They won’t last long in this warmish weather. Only a thin skim of ice covers the pond. All of it will be carried away by this afternoon’s eighteen-foot high tide.
Other than the mallards, the creek is empty of waterfowl. A small scattering of golden eye ducks dabble in Fritz Cove. We can’t spot a raven. On a tiny island in the creek’s mouth a murder of bored-acting crows ignore us and the incoming tide.
This morning only one bald eagle roosts on top of the old Treadwell mine ventilation shaft. Small waves slap at the base of the shaft. Rain soaks into the eagle’s feathers. It focuses one eye on the little dog and I and forces its eyebrow into a shallow “u.” I’ve seen a similar look on policemen and teachers about to scold a troublesome student.
Aki trots over to the beach’s grassy verge, apparently unaware of the eagle’s mood. A few yards away, a rusted piece of ore car railing emerges from the sand. Further down the beach, the tide has exposed a hundred-year-old engine block. In between chunks of shattered pottery and bricks lay on the beach. Maybe the eagle is upset with the men that left all this junk behind when the mines closed after World War I.
We walk on down the beach into the wind and exposed to the rain. When Aki and I reach the little bay formed by collapsing mine tunnels, we move into woods that have grown over the mining town of Treadwell. Steel cables, car springs and ore cart railings emerge from the flesh of spruce trees. The trees, not the things manufactured by men, are the aggressors. This is not right. The trees aren’t attacking, just tiding up the mess left by the men who moiled for gold. (“Moiled for gold” borrowed from “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service).