We have just turned our back on a great blue heron, leaving it standing tall among gulls on a gravel bar. The heron was looking toward the glacier, not the gulls or Aki, when we slipped around a rocky headland.
Now we are walking along a strip of gravel between a forested island and Fritz Cove. Inside the island crows and several bald eagles bicker and scream. Apparently having enough of the crow’s harassment, two of the eagles fly out of the trees and over our heads, startling ducks and gulls into flight. While the little dog and watch the eagles fly towards the Chilkat Mountains when we hear a sound like a rock plunking into the water.
Looking toward the sound, we spot a belted kingfisher shooting out of the water. It lands on an offshore rock just as another plunk sounds. This one is made by the first bird’s mate. The first guy flits onto another rock, drawing attention away from the other bird. It stands in profile with its huge beak pointing down the beach. Each time we move a few meters away from the second bird, the first one glides down the beach. When we are thirty meters from the second bird, the first guy circles over the water and reunites with its mate.
I wonder why the Creator burdened the diminutive kingfisher with such a massive beak that looks so like that of the heron. The spear-shaped beak is a well-balanced weapon on the large heron’s head. It forms a projectile the heron can shoot forward with its powerful neck muscles. The kingfisher must use his whole body as a spear, driving beak-first after fish swimming feet below the surface.
Pink salmon have replaced the chum salmon that tussled in the shallow water beneath the Fish Creek Bridge the last time Aki and I walked over it. Male pinks, with the distorted backs that earned them the nickname “humpies,” charge each other in the stream rapids. Unlike last time, when ravens and watched the salmons struggle, only a flock of no nonsense gulls takes in the show. There is one eagle roosting in a tree above the stream. Soon it will fly off.
Expecting to find many eagles and herons on our walk to the stream mouth, I try to rush the little dog. She gives me her “I have important work to do” stare and slows to catalogue trailside scents. Each sniff adds to her encyclopedic knowledge. I’m as impatience as the belted kingfisher chattering over our heads.
Several schools of pink salmon wander around a pond connected to the stream. A few hurl themselves out of the water as if that will hurry up the spawning process. Maybe female pink salmon dig an acrobatic guy. No herons wade in the pond shallows. No eagles watch the show. Only gulls float on the pond, looking for scraps of already dead fish.
On a spit covered with fireweed stalks and meadow grass already succumbing to fall, gangs of sparrows search the ground for food. The little brown birds spring up like grasshoppers when we walk down the trail. No eagles wait for us at the stream mouth, just more gulls and one raven flying over the creek delta as if it were an eagle.
Aki ignores the chum salmon splashing beneath the Fish Creek bridge. She doesn’t even flinch when one of the ten-pound fish slaps the water with its tail. While one of the chums rolls on its side and uses it tail to dig out a depression in the creek bed to hold its eggs Aki keeps her nose just millimeters from the bridge deck. She doesn’t give up on the scent until we cross the bridge and start down toward the creek mouth.
The little dog and I have kept away from the creek since the king salmon arrived. A chance to catch one of the largest of salmons drew many fishermen to the creek to snag one of the big fish. The kings have died out or moved up the creek to spawn. This is the time of the less tasty chum salmon. Only two men fish the pond when we arrive. Fresh chum salmon leap from the water. Two great blue heron watch the action from pond-side spruce trees.
The heron surprise me by leaving the safety of their roosts and glide toward a nearby pond beach. Aki ignores the long-necked birds, like she ignored the chum salmon. Instead she stares at me watching the herons. She might be silently pleading me to give the dinosaur-like birds a wide berth and return to the bridge so she can again inhale the intriguing smells on the bridge. Rather than attack the little dog or me, the herons fly a few meters down the beach. We swing into the woods, round the pond, and walk down a trail lined with aging fireweed stalks.
Diminutive sparrows flitter about the trail margins. One tries to land in the top of a fireweed. When the stalk bends toward the ground, the sparrow finds a more secure roost on a stunted spruce. After landing the sparrow, as plump as a stuffed toy, glares at the little poodle-mix and I. It shows less fear of us than the long-beaked herons did.
We will see dozens of sparrows bursting from the grass like grasshoppers when we reach the stream mouth. We’ll see the heron twice more. Both of them will fly into the top of a spruce tree normally occupied by bald eagles. Then they will try fishing in shallow stream rapids until a belted kingfisher harasses them into flight, a bird as small as the sparrow and just as brave.
There is something unsettling about the golden eye hen, the only duck on this moraine lake. It hunts for food with the aggression of a belted kingfisher. Rather than slip into the lake in search of fish, the golden eye slams its head into the water, pulling its plump body after it.
I’m trying Aki’s patience with my attempts to catch a trout. Just as I am about to give in to her whining, a cut throat trout leaps out of the water with my lure lodged in its jaw. It is free of the lure a second later. I am not surprised since I use barbless hooks. Responding to all the splashing, the golden eye cruises towards the little dog and I.
I think of a friend who once hooked a gull while trolling for salmon. The seabird flew into the air and floated like a kite above the boat. With much effort my friend managed to pull in the gull and free it from his hook. I reel in my lure until the golden eye paddles away.
Even though we are at the height of summer, Fritz Cove and the beach seemed empty of life. Next winter, when cold, wet rain will slicken the shore rocks, eagles will roost in nearby trees and sea ducks and scoters will fish the offshore waters. Today they were elsewhere. Rounding False Outer Point Aki and I only saw a small murder of crows fighting over scraps. That’s why the kingfisher was such a welcome surprise
The feisty bird skimmed a few feet above the water and then crashed into a shallow dive. After repeating this three times, it flew out of our sight. I doubt if Aki ever saw the kingfisher. I know the little dog never saw the bald eagle even though we walked within a few feet of its roost.
If the eagle were a human I would have said that it looked bored. It spent more time looking at its chest than at the little dog or I. After the eagle we worked our way to a forest trail and used it to return to the car. As we approached a murder of crows started dive-bombing the eagle. When it flew, the crows started going after each other.
It’s another white sky day. Aki and I have just left the Treadwell Woods and dropped onto Sandy Beach. The beach’s “sand” is made up of crushed mine tailings mixed with the detritus abandoned when the Treadwell mines closed almost 100 years ago.
The sun is up but is blocked by the smoke. Light from it manages to power through the haze to sparkle on the surface of Gastineau Channel. We can hear eagles complaining from their beachside roosts. But tiny and feisty belted kingfishers are the only birds to show themselves.
A kingfisher lands on the top of a busted wharf piling, gives Aki and I a careful look, and turns to study the surface of the channel. Spotting movement, it dives beak-first into the water, raising a splash that would knock it out of any human diving competition. No fish dangles for the bird’s beak when it surfaces.
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.