Aki and I are returning from Boy Scout Beach on a trail marked every half-mile or so with fresh bear scat. To warn the bear of our approach, I pull out my fancy phone and ask it to play Pachelbel’s Canon. With its repeats, the canon is a snake chasing its tail. But it is a gentle snake that doesn’t clash with the bird song or the music of Eagle River.
Before the canon can repeat once, we come upon bear scat laid onto the trail like lines of calligraphy. Did the neighborhood bear form a kanji character with its waste product? Emptying its bowels on the trail rather than in the surrounding woods was probably an attempt to claim territory or to warn noisy humans of its presence. Did this bear go the extra step of forming the character for good fortune, peace, or courage? Or is this scat just the random product of a bear’s alimentary canal?
This morning I couldn’t understand the message of songbirds, eagles, or the Canada geese that flew low over our heads when we approached the beach. What sounded like a robin’s love song to its mate was probably a warning for other birds to stay away. Geese honks, which rang in the air like warnings to flee, might have been taunts. The hangdog reaction of an eagle to the screams of a nest mate made me think that the eagle was being scolded.
I had the impression that the birds expected me to be non-fluent in bird language. They weren’t honking at me. But in the magical realist world hinted at by the kanji-like bear poop, I have to wonder if it is trying to say something to Aki and me.
It rained last night for the first time in at least a week. It will rain again and soon. Good day to visit with the ducks. Aki and I head out to wetlands drained by the Mendenhall River. We pass two bald eagles perched on the superstructure for one of the airport approach lights. After a third eagle flies over them, the roosting pair lean in toward each other, as if to gossip or show each other affection. Heads almost touching, the eagles watch the early morning jet to Anchorage.
To be honest, I here for the blue birds, not eagles or waterfowl. Many Juneauites have seen mountain bluebirds perched on snags above one of the wetlands meadows. The little dog and I leave the main trail to better scan the meadow for little guys. We won’t spot one of the rare songbirds but will make our first yearly sightings of northern shovelers and lesser scaups.
We’ll have ample opportunities to watch green wing teals and American Widgeons patrolling the mud flats for food. At one point two Canada geese will fly over our heads, giving away their position by their persistent honking.
There will be other eagles and a greater yellowlegs shorebird. But the big surprise, sprung on the little dog and I while crossing the most likely part of the meadow for spotting bluebirds, will be a flight of migrating snow geese that rise out of meadow grass and head down the Mendenhall River.
Canada geese have made themselves as common as pigeons in the USA and even Europe. But I still love to hear their nervous honking calls and watch their plump bodies strutting over a gravel bar. This morning a small gang of the geese feeds down near the mouth of Eagle River. Their designated guard goose issues more and more desperate warnings as the little dog and I approach them.
An extreme ebb tide has drained much of the water from the river. It would take us no more than minutes to reach the geese across the exposed riverbed. They would be airborne and gone in half that time. Aki, who weighs less than the guard goose, studiously ignores the noisy birds. I take a few photographs and swing with Aki into the riverside woods.
Thanks to strong sunshine it had been warm on the riverbank. Here, where trees block the sun, I start wishing for a heavier coat. We can hear robins and their cousins thrushes, except when their songs are blocked out by the honking warning of the gravel bar geese.
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?
I wish that those Canada geese would shut up. Aki doesn’t react to my rude comment as she moves down the Boy Scout Beach Trail. The geese, a clutch of at least twenty, occupy a frosty hillside on the other side Eagle River. Most search for food. Several stand guard on the hilltop. They all contribute to the general den, sounding like barking dogs.
The sun just managed to clear the mountain ridge to the south. Perhaps the geese are cheering it on. Maybe they are gossiping or giving unnecessary warnings about Aki’s presence.
Wrens add to the din, as do two red-breasted sapsuckers hammering an alder with their beaks. The little dog and I leave the woodpeckers behind and use a shaded trail to reach a tidal meadow. No matter how far we walk, we can never escape the dog yard sound of the geese.
More Canada geese float on river eddies or rest on exposed gravel bars. They start barking the minute we reach the meadow. The resident flock of Canada geese have spread themselves out on both sides of the river.
We won’t be free of geese chatter until we walk down Boy Scout Beach, swing back across the meadow, and return to the shaded trail. All the river birds will go silent when we leave the meadow. We will walk in silence, broken only by the roar of the river running over emerging rocks, until we are almost to the car. Men, not birds, will shatter the solitude, sharing their hunting stories.
As we wait for a human friend to pull on his winter boots, Aki and I watch several hundred Canada geese floating on Auk Lake. Most sleep with their heads tucked into their back feathers. The guard birds cackle. It’s hunting season. The geese spend the daylight hours when hunting is allowed resting on this lake where hunting is prohibited. Shortly after sunset they will fly out to the wetlands to feed. The birds have adapted.
We leave the birds’ sanctuary and head out to a riverine forest gone to sleep until the spring. No bird or animal breaks the silence. We see only a single raven and it flies off when it hears us talking. We continue on in the direction of the raven’s flight and find twin hemlock trees loaded down with Christmas ornaments. A strong offshore wind whips about the little trees. The nearby ground is littered with fallen ornaments. Normally I dislike human attempts to embellish nature’s beauty. But today, when low clouds hide the mountains and nothing but ravens fly, I appreciate some little globes of color.
As if to pin a lie on weatherman, nature brought us clear, cool skies this morning rather than the promised rain. At first light Aki and I head out to the Mendenhall Wetlands. I’m hoping that it still retains the two inches of snow that fell on it yesterday. But this is early days for winter. The temperature is already above freezing when reach the wetlands. We take the trail along the river even though it is already slick with thawing mud. Aki finds cleaner footing on the grassy fringe.
At first light the still-surfaced river captures crisp reflections of the glacier underlined by trees flocked with snow. But the rising sun frees a breeze that riffles the water. The slight wind doesn’t wake a huge raft of Canada geese that doze, heads tucked into their back feathers, near the opposite side of the river. Among the sleeping flock, four white-fronted geese slip quietly toward shore. These arctic birds will soon resume their southerly migration.
When the heads of two harbor seals appear near the Canadians, the geese move casually towards the beach. I don’t see the seals make a move, but they or maybe a passing eagle flush the geese into flight.
Other than checking frequently to make sure she is near, I haven’t paid much attention to Aki. The little dog, who loves snow, doesn’t seem to mind until I head back toward the muddy trail. Then she gives me one of her “what an idiot” looks, hesitates, and then fast-trots towards her foolish master.