It rained hard last night, a real soaker that energized Gold Creek to a dangerous level. Aki and I waited all morning for the storm to stop or at least slow down. When it began to tail back, we headed out to Fish Creek and found it overflowing it banks and carving out new channels through the old growth forest. But the rain had stopped.
Three eagles circled above the creek but I could not figure out what they were hunting. Until we reached the creek mouth, the only other evidence of life would be a three-toed woodpecker prospecting for bugs in the bark of an alder.
Just last week the creek and the estuary that it floods into were empty of bird life. This morning giant rafts of mallards search for food there. The boys are back for the winter. I hope that most of them will survive hunting season. An eagle makes a low pass over the raft, flushing a dozen ducks to flight, then returns with empty talons to the top of a spruce tree.
A hundred-bird murder of crows occupy the beach. They rise as a thin, black cloud and fly toward another eagle, harassing it until to takes shelter in a tall cottonwood tree. Then the crows fly across the face of Mendenhall Glacier just as the sun arcs a rainbow across their path. Remember your Bible, little dog. God filled the sky above Noah’s grounded ark as a sign that he would never again flood the world with rain. The rainbow fades just then, and the first drops of another storm start soaking into the poodle-mix’s fur.
We reached Sandy Beach this morning at low tide. A bedraggled eagle hunches on the roof of the mine ventilator shaft. When I look away, distracted by a silver salmon splashing off shore, the eagle flies down the beach and over a resting murder of crows. Since the eagle is heading in the direction of its nest, I assume it is just returning home, tired of roosting in the rain.
Four other eagles are bickering with crows when we reach the little bay formed by the collapse of subsea mining tunnels a hundred years ago. Dive-bombing crows forced one of the eagles off the beach and onto the top of a splintered piling.
Apparently menaced by a crow a fraction of its size, the eagle takes off. The crow, a much more agile flyer that the eagle, grabs at the eagle’s tail and wing feathers as the eagle makes for a spruce tree roost just over my head. I look around for Aki and find her tucked away safely in the woods.
Ravens seem to beg to be anthropomorphized. Aki and I happen upon a gang of the teenage-like birds gathered on a beach dotted with pink salmon carcasses. One of the purpley-black birds crouches over an eyeless salmon body, ripping flesh from the fish’s back with its massive beak. The other birds cackle criticism at the eating bird and then take off, making enough noise to scare nearby gulls into flight.
The ravens don’t bother a green winged teal or a brace of greater yellow legs that feed in a shallow pond. They ride rising wind currents up and over Fish Creek and then break off into head first dives like WWII fighter pilots descending on enemy bombers. When even this becomes too mundane, they dive bomb a bald eagle, driving it off its spruce tree roost. While the eagle had no stomach for a fight, a crow rises to the occasion and drives off the much larger ravens when they get too close to crow country.
The little dog and I walk up the stream, surprised more than once by the loud splashes made by male pink salmon as they fight each other for spawning space. We startle to flight a pair of great blue herons hunting the little fish that thrive on salmon flesh. Squawking like barnyard geese, they move to a nearby pond where another heron is already feeding.
As Aki and I took the switchback trail that drops into the Treadwell Woods, something brushed by me and leaped in Aki’s direction. The little poodle-mix knew what was coming. She wasn’t surprised when a large bird dog puppy, all legs and grin, dropped into a crouch in front of her. The two yipped and circled each other until the bird dog, easily four times Aki’s weight, got a little too exuberant. Aki snapped out a reproach and the puppy dropped her head down in submission. It amazes me how Aki gets away with bossing around bigger dogs.
After the puppy’s owner dragged his dog away on a lead, we wandered among the ruins of old Treadwell and dropped onto Sandy Beach. I was not surprised to see two bald eagles roosting on the roof of the old ventilation tower. The waters of Gastineau channel had cut the tower off from the beach. From their island tower the eagles watched a murder of crows that had taken up station of the tops of old wharf pilings or beach rocks. After Aki and I entered the scene two of the crows descended on a fresh salmon carcass to feed.
The eagles just watched the crows tearing into in fish they probably desired. Did the feisty, but much smaller birds intimidate them like my 10-pound poodle-mix intimated the puppy? Or were the eagles just worried about the man who was pointing a suspiciously gun-like object at them?
Shouldering my camera, I moved down the beach to let the crows and eagles work things out for themselves. After a gap of fifty meters had opened up I watched all the crows take to the air. Only one eagle roosted on the roof of the ventilation shaft.
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.