The rain, the absence of unnatural sounds, and the calming dominance of forest greens are needed this morning. The little dog and I are near worn out by our recent stint of warm and sunny weather. Like the just sprouted seeds in our garden, we needed a little water from the sky.
The flowering forest plants are ahead of schedule. Tiny green balls have already replaced the lantern-shaped flowers on blueberry bushes. Yellow water lily flowers unfold onto the surface of the beaver pond. The fallen petals of cloudberry flowers dot the muskeg meadow we must cross to reach the beach.
No one would call all these small beauties exciting. But I’m fine with that. We had out excitement quota filled for the day when I stopped for a moment at the boat ramp. The old troller boat that had been beached was now afloat just offshore. I wanted to photograph it against a background of the smuggler cove islands softened by low lying clouds. Twenty meters away two eagles fought over a scrap of fish. The winner carried it down the beach, leaving the loser to sulk.
Thinking about the disappointed eagle, I follow Aki onto the Outer Point Beach. A solitary eagle flies from Shaman Island to a beachside spruce. Otherwise, only gulls and gulls animate the grey scene. A puff of vapor forms above the surface of Stephen’s Passage. In seconds I can make out the black back of an exhaling humpback whale. Just behind the surfacing whale, another vapor plume appears.
The whale sightings provide more reassurance than drama. I’ve seen humpbacks breach near my kayak. But reassurance that there are whales is all I need on this gentle morning.
Aki is covered in mud again. It just took seconds for her to sneak past her human family and slip into a pond that is thick with decomposing plant matter. We aren’t worried. Soon we will reach a pocket beach where she will get a quick bath.
It’s Memorial Day in Alaska. For Aki’s family it’s a day to drop out of normal life and spend time with each other. What better way is there to honor the family’s deceased? While Aki chases her Frisbee, I remember my parents and grandparents and the other honored dead. If they retain the love they had for life after joining the dead, they would smile knowing that their living kin were enjoying life, human and wild, on a wild beach rather than standing before their headstones.
We spooked an immature bald eagle to flight when we reached the beach. The crows moved in after the eagle left, teasing mussel shells off exposed rocks. The ones they couldn’t crack with their beaks were carried into the air and then dropped on a flat rock, which served first as an anvil and then a table for the hungry birds.
Eagles are flying over our heads, forced off the wetlands by an incoming tide. I ask Aki, “Little dog, where are the ducks? The poodle-mix looks at me like a person might look at someone searching for the nearest ice cream store in a burning city. Maybe she wonders why I care about dull ducks when the tidal meadow is magenta with shooting stars. She knows that they are my favorite flower, something I inherited from my dad.
My interest in waterfowl is more intellectual than esthetic. All winter the Fish Creek delta was infested with mallards. American widgeons and teals joined them in the spring. Fish ducks like golden eyes, buffleheads, and harlequins paddled offshore. Today it’s all gulls, eagles, and crows.
Our first eagle of the day was an immature bird that roosted near the opening of Fish Creek Pond until forced off by one if its elders. We see the young eagle a half and hour later being driven off an ocean side roost by an adult bird. The three other adult birds in the neighborhood scream what sounds like curses as the immature eagle flies off across Fritz Cove.
All the eagle action pushed duck thoughts out of my mind. So did our sighting of a red-breasted sapsucker that we inadvertently flushed from the path as we rounded the pond. But soon I thinking about ducks.
There is a place on the trail back to the car where a guy can sneak through a screen of spruce and spy on a little pond. A few weeks ago the pond was lousy with ducks. Today I found two mallards when I eased out of the trees—a hen and drake. They stood as close as lovers on a mound of bare dirt, a nesting pair. Mystery solved.
It is almost impossible to rise with the sun during the northern summer. At this time of the morning last winter Aki and I would have been hiking in the dark. Still, during most of our visit we will have the Fish Creek delta to ourselves. A nice bird watcher arrived just before us but didn’t go beyond the pond.
On the drive to the trailhead, I thought about deer and when a doe walked in front of the car. After we stopped, it crossed to the west side of the road and tried to find cover behind a sparse blueberry bush. Another deer appeared to be waiting for us at the trailhead parking area. Acting like it was still undiscovered, it tiptoed off the trail and into a forest tangle.
Things have calmed down on the delta since our last visit. The resident eagles have reached accommodation with the crows, which no longer try to drive the bigger predators from their roosts. Freed up from defense work, the crows have spread out to feed on the tidal meadow. One crow lands on a rock in the middle of tiny pond, apparently to enjoy its reflection in the pond’s surface. It doesn’t seem to notice a sandpiper that wades past.
The marine layer that darkened our skies for weeks is breaking into clouds that reflect in the waters of Fritz Cove. An adult bald eagle flew out over the cove, dove on a fish and pulled up—wings wet and talons empty. Now it squats at the top of a spruce tree with its wings spread out to dry, a sour look on its face.
Aki and were walking back to the car, powering into a strong wind when the heron flew low over our heads, croaked like a sick raven, and dropped onto the surface of a small pond. The heron was a surprise. I expected to see some eagles on the Fish Creek delta and we did. But we rarely see herons here.
I could see five bald eagles from the spot where I watched the heron. Aki acted like we were alone in the universe. Two eagles were hanging out on a nearby navigational aid tower. Another stood on a beach, ripping apart some morsel of food. The other two eagles crouched, head to head, on the bank of Fish Creek. They couldn’t see much in the creek. Our recent rainstorms had swollen it and turned its normally clear water mocha brown.
During the outbound portion of the walk, we had watched an adult bald eagle lift off from the wetlands and fly toward us. As it grew larger and larger I looked down to make sure Aki was safe. No fool, the poodle mix stood right next to my legs. Another eagle, roosted just above us in a spruce, screamed out a welcome just before the other eagle joined it.
A brace of crows, each less than an eighth the mass of the eagles, landed just above the eagles. They cawed and invaded the eagle’s personal space. They weren’t going to let two eagles roost on the edge of the forest where their murder is raising this year’s brood. In seconds the eagles departed. We left too before the crows focused their attention on us. We have both been dive bombed by crows during their nesting season.
The little dog and I rush out the door again, again wanting to see the Fish Creek delta while the morning light is still good. Okay, that was a human-centric statement. While I wanted to see the delta washed by the kind of light captured by Flemish painters, Aki would have preferred a sleep in. She’s joined up to make sure I don’t get into trouble. It’s still cold enough on the delta for me to need gloves. (Another human-centric statement). The grass not yet touched by the morning sun is covered with a fine frost. Crow caws and eagle screams let everything within a mile that Aki is back in town.
As I watch a solitary swallow thin out the mosquito population, I think about Annie Dillard and her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She dived deep in what her creek had to offer on each of her many visits. If she lived in our rain forest, what would she make of seeing only one swallow instead of the expected cloud of its kind diving and gliding after flying bugs. The scene might inspire her to get out her copy of Silent Sprintand return each morning in hope of seeing more swallows hunting over the meadow.
Trying on Ms. Dillard’s skin for size, I lead Aki along the creek, watching mallards in twos and threes fly over our heads and those of roosting eagles to the same meadow where I watched to swallow. Would she guess that the flooding tide forced the ducks into the air?
Crows seem to be every where, wading in shallow ponds, bathing in the fast moving creek, pecking their way through meadow grass. So are eagles. A brace of mature eagles keeps watch on each end of the causeway that links the mainland with a small, spruce-covered island. The island seems infested with noisy crows. We inadvertently flush an immature eagle from the edge of the island by walking under its roosting tree. It circles over our head and lands in a different roosting tree. Ms. Dillard might ask what is keeping all these eagles on the parameter of a crow-infested island.
Aki gives me her worried look, something she conveys by flexing her eyebrows. She doesn’t care about natural philosophy or biology or Annie Dillard. She was touched by the shadow of a predator. “Time,” the ten-pound-poodle-mix seems to say, “to go.”
The mallards are still here, settled in along the banks of Fish Creek. But the widgeons that we watched last week are gone. I can’t find one, nor can I spot a green wing teal. Those transients must have moved north. Other migrants has arrived.
A pair of American robins try to decoy us down the trail. It is too early in the spring for their rich nesting songs. Today we will only hear discordant birds songs: crow grumbles, the harsh threats of Stellar’s jays, and screams of frustration from touchy eagles.
Two half-foot slabs of pond ice still lay athwart the trail. They won’t last long in this warmish weather. Only a thin skim of ice covers the pond. All of it will be carried away by this afternoon’s eighteen-foot high tide.
Other than the mallards, the creek is empty of waterfowl. A small scattering of golden eye ducks dabble in Fritz Cove. We can’t spot a raven. On a tiny island in the creek’s mouth a murder of bored-acting crows ignore us and the incoming tide.