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.
Suddenly, Aki has a shadow. It’s the last thing I expected on this grey morning. We are approaching the old Auk Village site on a beach exposed by the retreating tide, trying to get a walk in before it rains. The shafts of sunlight piercing the marine layer are a surprise.
We’ve seen this kind of storm light before. Sometimes it appears as rain clouds breaks up. I suspect that today its presence confirms the weatherman’s prediction of rain. In minutes the light disappears and is replaced by a cooling wind. The strong breeze blows us past the village site and out to Point Louisa.
We’ve seen eagles, seals, and tight clusters of ducks at the point. Today’s wind has blown away the usual rafts of scoters and golden eye ducks. Crows bounce up one at time into the air, as if playing a game with obscure rules. Four of the crows take shelter behind a nearby boulder. Aki disappears behind her own sheltering rock, as smart as a crow.
A misery of wet snow fell on the little dog and I when we walked from our house to the car. As I drove Aki looked uncertain. The wipers worked to clear the windshield of the stuff. At least no wind rocked the car as we headed out to the northern end of Douglas Island. There we hoped to find protection from the mucky weather in an old growth forest.
At the trailhead, Aki sniffed spots on the parking area as I pulled on ice cleats. Without them I’d fall on the icy trail. The warm, wet weather was already softening the trail ice. By next week, the cleats might be stored away until next winter. Except for eagle screams and raven complaints the rain forest was silent. Nothing slowed our progress to the beach where we found hundreds of surf scoters formed into tightly packed rafts.
One of the scoter rafts formed into a line and cruised past two crows on an offshore rock. One of the crows stood erect as a preacher. Few of the scoters turned their orange beaks toward the crows. But a lone harlequin dock approached with its head tilted as if to better hear the sermon.
The empty parking for the False Outer Point Beach promises an empty trail. This doesn’t bother the normally social Aki. It pleases her owner, who enjoys each chance to explore a beautiful place in solitude. Tears are forming in the thick fog that had been preventing us from seeing more than a half-mile of channel water. Through one of them we can see Mt. McGinnis. Through another a slice of the Chilkat Mountains appears.
I’m thankful for the mountain views and the fact that it isn’t raining. It pleases me more that nothing has scared the resident raft of golden eye ducks away from the beach. Aki stays close to my side as we round the point where an eagle sulks in the bare branches of a spruce snag. Off shore a man in an open skiff drops a hook baited with a herring into the water. I silently wish him luck in his effort to catch a king salmon, remembering the taste of winter caught kings.
The ebbing tide must have left behind some tasteful carrion. A murder of crows, maybe 200 of them, tussles with the local gulls for the goodies. A bald eagle abandons the beach to them and flies over our heads and onto a spruce limb. From the top of a small boulder, ten feet away, raven lectures the little dog and I. He follows us down the beach, croaking out his speech. It isn’t welcomed.
I am still in Seaside, an honorary member of a community of writers that gathers here every January. It’s a group generous with their time, attention and knowledge. But the level of energy that ran through us at the state of this residency is dropping.
To recharge, I take walks on the beach. But it lacks the magic of the North Douglas trails back home in Juneau. At first I assigned fault to the multistory structures that crowd the beach. But this is off-season, so they are empty shells reduced to silent silhouettes. Then I have to blame the other beach walkers, who migrated to the strip of sand just soaked by the retreating tide. Even when none of the walkers are close, their footprints and those left by previous beach users turn the beach into a much-used highway. It might be different if I could find an eagle or one could find me. Some of the writers have seen a bald eagle but I have had to make due with gulls and a gang of opportunistic crows.
Gulls are as common in Juneau as ravens on garbage day. I’ve seen both on my way to writing school classes here in Seaside, Oregon. This morning two gulls landed on the wooden railing of a second story deck. One acted as look out while the other one shuffled over to a sliding glass window. The forward one rapped on the window with its beak, then clucked. The scene was repeated five times without anyone answering the gull’s summons.
Not wanting to be late for a lecture on scene, I moved on as the gull made a sixth try to have someone answer its call. I remembered the crow that landed one morning on our deck railing while I practiced guitar. As I ran through the scales, the little guy strutted up to the window that separated us. He didn’t tap on the window, just twisted his head to the side as if to hear me better. When I switched from warm ups to “Toy” by Dowling, the crow flew away.
As a single crow lands on an offshore rock, I look for the rest of the murder. Crows never travel alone. Neither our approach nor the small waves slapping it’s rock perch bothers the bird. I turn away to watch an eagle land in the top of a spruce. When I look back there are two crows in the rock.
In seconds, five more land on the crow’s small island. The original guy doesn’t yield any ground as its brothers and sisters point their talons at the rock, throw back their wings, and alight next to him. Another one lands, bringing the total to seven crows on the rock.
Another twenty crows do a flyby. They draw off birds from the rock until only the original crow remains. Then he flies around a headland and out of sight. Down the beach we find the murder feeding in the splash zone. Aki sniffs a diminutive snowman with a mussel shell bow tie, and cow parsnip arms. Tiny chunks of beach shale form its eyes and mouth.