Yesterday afternoon, our plane could barely land on the Juneau Airstrip. Clouds from a heavy fall storm almost force us to fly on to Anchorage. But we bounced and slowed on the runway and were soon deplaning at the airport. Forty-five minutes later we left the airport while calming down the nerves in our nostrils after being tested for Covid. Then we started a mandatory quarantine.
This morning, while the town was enjoying a brief brake between heavy rain storms, Aki and I took the car out to a remote trail where we could walk without risking any contact with other humans. As it turned out, we would have lots of contact with wild birds. The dog and I fell into the old ways—watching out for each other.
Most of the action took place along a little creek, where it crossed it’s tidal meadow. More than a dozen bald eagles huddled together along the creek bank, eating salmon scraps. Ducks and gulls hung about them, ready to grab anything that floated away from the eagles.
Suddenly, a pair of belted kingfishers dashed over the eagle’s hangout, chanting intimidations before diving for food in the creek. A raven drove off one of eagles. Two merganser ducks sulked off. The other eagles fled. When the kingfishers flew to another section of the stream, Aki and spotted a black-billed magpie, acting like it had just driven off the other pesky birds.
Offshore, a bald eagle stands with his lowered, as if in prayer. I know this is done in response to a heavy shower that soaking the eagle, Aki and I. But seeing it makes me wonder whether animals have a spiritual component in their lives.
Eagles are too practical for religion. They are always looking for their next meal. But Aki, who never has to worry about food, has the time to reflect on the meaning of life.
Further down the beach, a belted king fisher lands on a rounded rock. Feisty little dudes like him could benefit from a broader perspective. They could be mother nature’s cops. The rain seems to have taken the starch out of this kingfisher. Rather than buzz off the competition, it lowers its head and watches a clutch of gulls snatch baitfish from nearby water.
On an otherwise empty beach, Aki snuffles the sand. I watch her even though it means facing an up-channel breeze that throws rain in my face. Two eagles in a nearby tree also watch the little dog. They turn their heads away when I point my camera at them. They are waiting for something editable to wash ashore.
In a week or so, the eagles will be pulling flesh from salmon carcasses marooned on the beach by the ebbing tide. For now, they must watch and wait for lesser fare. At least three more eagles roost in the beachside trees. Just down the beach, a belted kingfisher watches the glory hole bay while perched on a glacier erratic.
The kingfisher won’t fly away unless I get really close. I don’t, choosing to watch it watching me through a curtain of rain. Inside the Treadwell Woods, I have a similar stare down with a pine siskin. It and the other song birds show no fear of Aki nor I, which surprises me given all the goof ball dogs that galumph through the woods. Then I realize that this is their harvest time.
Knowing that this year’s crop of dog salmon should already be heading up the Mendenhall River to spawn, I drive Aki out to a trail that leads to the river’s mouth. Usually we hear eagle and raven squabbles just after getting out of the car. This morning only robins and sparrows break the silence. The trail winds along a forested hillside, requiring the little dog and I to maneuver around and over exposed spruce roots. At first I worry that the Aki might reinjure her leg jumping over something. But she does fine.
The beach, when we reach it, is as quiet as the woods. No salmon fin in eddies. No ducks or geese gossip on the shore. Here and there beach rocks are decorated with yellow flower petals. We will find these little dots of yellow on over a kilometer stretch of beach. A belted kingfisher scolds us and then lands on a rock near the river. Then we hear the first eagle. It screams from inside a tangle of spruce limbs. Other eagles will call out as we progress down the beach. But will only see one of them.
On the drive back home, I stop at the hatchery where dog salmon wait to swim up a fish ladder to their death. Over a dozen bald eagles watch the salmon from perches in tree tops, pilings, and the top of the Juneau Empire building. Maybe made confident by their number, the eagles don’t seem bothered by our presence. Unlike their hard scrabble Mendenhall River cousins, these urban birds look large and in charge.
This is an experiment. Rather than restrict Aki to a short neighborhood walk. I’ve driven her to the False Outer Point trailhead. We will walk the trail while keeping Aki on her leash. This will keep her from running. It will also keep me pinned down each of the many times she will stop to pee or sniff.
Yesterday she paced about the house, letting me know that she needed more exercise than what she received during the short neighborhood walk. It takes twice as long as normal for us to reach the beaver pond. The resident mallard hen stands exposed on a tiny island. The remains of this year’s chick brood hides near her in the grass. A bald eagle circles over the scene. Last summer she lost most of her chicks to an eagle and a great blue heron. I hope she has better luck this year.
We wander past the hen and move as slow as a geriatric drill team to the beach. Just offshore a belted kingfisher hovers fifteen meters in the air. Then, it drops like a dive bomber into the water. In another second it bursts skyward with a captured fish in its beak.
Aki is giving me her “Don’t Expect Me to Follow You!!!” look. She intends to finish the Rain Forest Trail loop and be home in time to mooch cheese from her other human. I want to walk down a beach still wet from the retreating tide. We will see more eagles than dogs, little dog, but I’m feeling selfish.
The dawn broke clear and the sun is still low enough in the sky to bathe the ocean in intense light. Bald eagles come and go from their spruce roosts, making sorties over Lynn Canal. Most return with empty talons. Each time an eagle returns to its roost, at least one crow drops onto a nearby limb to harass it. None of the eagles show the least interest in Aki.
The poodle-mix follows closely behind me when we approach False Outer Point. A scattering of crows leave the beachside forest and land on rocks recently revealed by the ebbing tide. One of the black, crow-sized birds has an orange beak. It’s an oyster catcher. I haven’t seen one this year. Even though it is as noticeable on its sun-soaked beach rock as a flashing traffic barrier, the oyster catcher freezes in place as if camouflaged.
Nothing startles the oyster catcher into flight, not a salmon leaping just offshore, the growl of a Steller seal lion, the shadow of a cruising eagle, or two belted kingfishers engaged in aerial combat.
The pine siskins have spread out over the wetlands. It must be their nesting time. If you hear bird song now, it is either a siskin or the more vocally skillful American robin. The robins hop through the low grass, always trying to seduce you into following them away for their nest. It makes them seem common and uninteresting until you spot one of the males, with a red breast posing in front of butter cup flowers.
I’ve a soft spot in my heart for the pine siskins, the way they sing while swaying in the top of a shaft of impossibly thin dried grass. Since I am confessing, I also have a thin for sandpipers, the way they stand in the shallows on one leg. Are they resting the other one or just showing off?
The trail is crowded today with dog walkers. This pleases Aki, who really enjoys meets and greets. While she and another dog exchange sniffs, we owners walk slowly our of sneezing range of each other. We are practicing social distance, like the birds who fly off if a dog or human gets too close. A belted king fisher buzzes over our heads and hovers over the river while screaming our its discordant call. I will it into one of its patent cannonball plunges. But rather dive in the water, it flies across the river looking for more accessible prey.
Ravens fill the Treadwell Woods with croaks, beeps, chortles, and complaints as a large family approaches. Have the big birds taken on the job of warning of the approach of the infected? Feeling like a leper myself, I pick up Aki and move to the far side of the trail, establishing a safe space for the family to pass.
Given the weather, I am surprised to meet any humans here. Yesterday’s clear skies are obscured by a squall. Compact pellets of snow bounce onto the trail. I’m here for the eagles. A mated pair keep a nest in a tree overlooking the collapsed glory hole. Thanks to the noisy ravens we’ll never hear an eagle. They may also be the reason why we will never see one.
When we drop down on it from the woods, Sandy Beach is empty except for ravens and one self-assured belted kingfisher. It lands on a nearby wharf piling as a raven dances and sings on the beach. Raven continues the performance from the top of another wharf piling. Assuming the posture of a petitioning lover, he boxes the compass, croaking to the north, east, west, and south. Kingfisher flies off but only as far as another piling wharf from where he listens to raven finish his atonal love song.
It started out like a raven day. Fog hid the channel-side mountains. The runout of a recent Mt. Roberts avalanche stuck out from the bottom line of fog like a tongue. More than a dozen ravens gabbled and garbled in the bare trees lining Sandy Beach. Some flirted. Most harassed each other. Three took station atop splinter-top wharf pilings, which have stood on the beach for 100 years, ready for ravens. No wonder these three act like they own the beach.
The white shoulders of Mt. Roberts muscles through the fog was I study the raven watchmen. Down channel, Sheep Mountain appears against a backdrop of blue sky and shattered clouds. The fog holds above the southern channel but the sun is about to bust through.
Aki and I leave the ravens and head toward the deep little cove formed by a 19th Century mine tunnel collapse. A lazy raft of mallards paddled on the cove when we reached it. I wonder if the ducks were as startled as me when a belted kingfisher slamed full speed into the water with a hollow “plunk”. As the sound fades, the kingfisher shot into the air with what looked like a small herring in its beak. Don’t even think about trying that Mr. Raven.
As Aki and I round Fish Creek Pond, a kingfisher scolds us, what Poet Wendall Berry describes as the sound of the bird closing its rusty hinge. Out of the corner of my eye I see a stiff twig still vibrating after the kingfisher launched from it. The bird with attitude hovers for a moment over the iced-over pond and flies off.
The little dog and I walk out onto the spit that parallels Fish Creek. We can hear the high, also hysterical cry of an unseen shorebird. From nearby woods comes an eagle scream. But all if can see is a small raft of bufflehead ducks and a handful of gulls. We will watch two eagles before the walk ends, but both will fly high and straight out of sight.
Down Stephens Passage Blue-grey snow clouds slowly close a sucker hole through which a sun had spotlighted a patch of the slope of Mt. Stoller White. I expect the clouds to close over us like fog but they hand over the passage. A sparse shower of snow gives us a taste of what is slouching our way.