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.
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.
As rain soaks into Aki’s fur, a belted kingfisher pluck a baitfish from the water and then lands on a rock in the tidal zone. It flips, chomps, and swallows the fish and settles in atop the rock. Plumped up and with its feathers slick and wet, the kingfisher reminds me of the banker icon from Monopoly, With my rain smeared glasses I can’t see whether the bird is sporting a monocle.
The little poodle-mix and I are the only one using the Rainforest trail this morning. Aki is a good sport about the rain, as usual. But she appears to be in a hurry to get back under the old growth canopy.
I’d follow her off the beach now if not for the line of harlequin ducks cruising through the trough line of a swell. When they are not hidden by a wave, I can see that the little party-colored ducks swim with heads buried in the water. Closer in, gulls appear to be standing on the ocean’s surface. The incoming tide will soon force them off their already submerged perches. But for now, they are quite content to rest on their rocks.
Should dogs have spirit animals? If Aki had one, it would be the belted kingfisher. We spot the feisty little birds on many of our rain forest walks. This morning, one burst out of a spruce tree chattering abuse, flew over a moraine lake that I was photographing, did a barrel roll and disappeared into a balsam popular tree in fall color. If you had wings little dog, that would be you.
Aki, who had once chased a black bear up a tree close to the kingfisher’s roost with only her bark and attitude, gave me her “Don’t be Stupid” look.
It had been raining where we started this walk through the glacier moraine but now it has stopped. No drops strike the lake to ruin the reflection of the poplars in high color. I’d expect ducks or even transiting swans to be resting on the lake. But only the kingfisher makes an appearance.