It’s a day for corvids. I’m talking about the birds, not the virus. Three Stellar’s blue jays watch the little dog and I pass under their spruce tree roast, looking as unaffected by our passage as a Buckingham Castle guard. Without so much as a scolding from the diminutive corvids, we continue down the trail to salt water.
The usual mallard gang hunts for food in the Fritz Cove shallows. One hen bursts off the water and flies over to a nearby kettle pond. She stands in shallow water that reflects her beauty back to her. The fit mallard looks sleek with not one feather out of place. While I wonder what flushed her from the salt water, the rest of the mallards from her raft panic into flight. Looking up I see the cause—a bald eagle that just landed in the top of a nearby spruce.
Aki, not a fan of eagles, is happy when we move down the trail to the mouth of the stream. There, a murder of crows fidgets from one bank to the other and back. Some find purpose when they spot a solitary raven skulking on the branch of a driftwood tree that has become stuck in the middle of the creek.
I expect a noisy squabble. The crows raise their young in a nearby forest. They consider ravens trespassers. But only a few of the crows land on the raven’s driftwood hang out. Even these seem more curious than outraged.
The tide is out at Sandy Beach. A pair of adult bald eagles are hunched in the branches of a tall cottonwood tree. The stiff breeze powers through their neck feathers, giving each a bald spot. If the eagles turn around, they could watch convention of ravens convening near the waterline.
Several inches of new snow brighten the beach above the high tide line. The snow is dimpled by the prints of dogs and their humans. A raven flies toward Aki as she investigates a promising set of prints. It flies low over her head. The startled dog leaps in surprise as the raven circles her and lands two meters away. Is this the same raven that tries to play tag with the poodle-mix at Sheep Creek? If not, work must have gotten out in Raven’s ville that Aki is quick to take the bait.
When Aki ignores the raven, it circles me a few times, lands on the sand, and struts away like the rich man on a Monopoly board. Three different ravens squawk as they fly over the channel. They fly across the Slide Creek avalanche chute, now burdened by the runout of a fresh avalanche.
This morning the little dog and I sought a trail that wasn’t covered with mushy snow. We found it in the strip of forest that curls around the north end of Douglas Island. The trail there was bare and made for easy walking except where remnants of snow covered the path. An invisible cloud of small birds—dark-eyed juncos and chickadees—almost deafened us with their insect-like chirping.
Water poured over the beaver’s dam, which was still covered with decaying ice. Yellow-green shoots of skunk cabbage pushed up through the ice. It felt like winter had abandoned the forest, retreating into the still snow-covered mountains of the Douglas Island Ridge.
On the beach fronting the forest, eagles relaxed on the top of waterside-rocks. A scattering of mallards waddled in and out of tiny lines of surf. High tides had flushed away most of the snow from the beach. But no green leaves climbed up the dead stalks of beach grass. Is this another false spring?
Aki and I are walking through the ruins of winter. At least that is how it seems. No snow clings to the trailside trees or hides the forest floor. Ice only covers two-thirds of the pond, and that is paper thin. A strip of denser ice covers the trail. It will soon be gone unless the north wind returns our winter.
This is not the spring of fresh growth and bird song—it is the time for mud and dead grass. We will see four eagles on our walk to salt water. All of them will be roosting on mid-channel navigation markers. One Canada goose will fly over calling out for companions. We will never spot its flock.
None of this desolation will bother a merganser drake floating on a disintegrating ice island. True, its red-colored head feathers will be all ahoo. But that’s normal for the fish ducks. It will float by an ice remnant that looks like a sea wolf. I will wonder if the first artist in this area were inspired by such stubborn pieces of dying ice.
Two adult bald eagles watch Aki and I walk out of old growth woods and onto a snow-covered beach. Before we appeared they were probably watching ducks. There must be over a thousand of them just offshore: scoters, golden eyes, mallards, and my favorites—the harlequins. The golden eyes seem the most jumpy. In twos and threes they fly away, their wings imitating the maniacal call of Curley, one of the Three Stooges. The scoters are the most organized. Their large raft forms and reforms shapes like a American high school band at a football game. A half-dozen mallards watch all this from the beach. A few feet away, harlequins paddle with their heads plunged into the water.
I’m thankful for the chance to watch the ducks being ducks, not waterfowl made tense by eagle dives or aggressive dogs. But it is puzzling that the eagles haven’t tried pluck one of the unsuspecting harlequins from the water.
Aki’s having fun porpoising through the beach snow. She even ignores the siskins and thrush bouncing from limb to limb in the beachside alders. The little dog doesn’t object when we drop down onto bare section of the beach. The last flood tide has carried away the snow, leaving behind piles of severed seaweed.
Just after we find a set of fresh deer tracks, the first of 11 large dogs charges up to me. They are loose, but relatively well behaved. The dogs’ human handler carries a half-gallon sized bag for collecting their poop so he is not a yob. But any chance of spotting the deer is now gone. In seconds the dogs will be charging down the beach, stirring ducks, and maybe eagles to flight. We move on, saddened that the trail ahead, the one just transited by the dog pack, will have been swept clean of wild things.
I was in the mood for solitude so I drove Aki to the Mendenhall Peninsula trailhead. Falling snow slowed traffic and deadened the view from Egan Highway. Only one car was parked near the trailhead. No tracks led from it. The scent of marijuana smoke hung in the air. The driver of the parked car was putting his solitude to use.
The little dog and I followed an informal trail across a forested side hill. The trail is tricky on a dry sunny day. This morning’s thin screen of snow made it worse. The nimble Aki had no problems reaching the water. She waited a long time to me to join her. We spooked a raft of mallards and watched them fly over the Mendenhall River. If the sun were shinning, the ducks’ shadows would have touched a cruising seal.
We saw two other seals and a sea lion before returning the forest. Seals normally slip quietly beneath the water’s surface. One we spotted today crash dived, like it was in a hurry to catch prey. It reappeared near the far shore of the river. I wondered if it had been day dreaming when it looked over and spotted the poodle mix and I on the beach.
An eagle scream diverted my attention away from the seals. We watched an eagle join its noisy mate in the top of a spruce tree. No food hung from the talons of the new arrival. I suspect that it’s mate’s scream was a scold, not a welcome home greeting.
Sunshine lights up our street just as Aki and I pass out the front door. We walk onto our unploughed street and into a very confused weather situation. The sun’s appearance didn’t end a snow shower that began a couple of hours. Newly-whitened Mt. Juneau shines bright in the sunshine while snow clouds darken the skies over Gastineau Channel. A croaking raven flies over our heads, snowflakes softening its silhouette against the blue sky. Before we reach the end of the block, the gray returns.
We drop down the hill, passing the grounds of the Catholic church where a sparrow, nestled into a nest of snow, sings its spring song. The lilting melody cannot end winter, or even stop the falling snow. But I take a little time to enjoy it.
Later, while climbing up Gastineau Avenue, we hear a more seasonal bird song—the complaints of two eagles perched in a cottonwood tree.