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.
Aki ignores the murder of crows gathered on the Auk Nu beach. Rather than reacting to us, the crows play a bouncing game. For no apparent reason, one flies ninety degrees up then drops like a rock onto the beach. Next two birds bounce up and down. A third bird tries it. When an eagle swoops over them the crows fly in a low arc over the water and return to the beach. Are crows and ravens the only birds with spare time to kill?
The other birds we pass are either hunting, eating, or resting. Scoters and harlequin ducks dive on food in the bay. A sea lion rolls once on the surface and slips under the water to chase a fish. One bald eagle surveys the bay from a spruce roost after temporarily flushing the crows.
The little dog and I leave the beach for a forest trail that leads to Point Louisa. It takes us between lines of yellowing blueberry bushes to a spit where we can see the old village site. From this spot 100 years ago, we could have seen smoke climbing from the roofs hand-hewn long houses. Big canoes, dug out from single spruce or cedar logs would have littered the beach. A canoe full of Auk Tlingits chased a boat of British sailors back to Lt. Vancouver’s brig. A canoe from Wrangell carried John Muir here.
The canoes and long houses are gone. One totem pole survives to stand over a village site of dogwood, thimbleberry and fireweed gone to seed.
There is still an hour before the tide crests at 18.7 feet. Already it has turned the Fish Creek delta into a lake. Whether to escape the shrinking beaches where they had been hunting for food, or because they just feel like it, a large murder of crows retreats to the forested island that we are attempting to circumnavigate. Aki ignores the verbal battle that erupts between the crows and a handful of eagles that already occupying the island’s canopy.
On the other side of the temporary lake, a bald eagle swoops over a raft of mallard ducks, flushing them to flight. Failing to snatch one for a meal, the eagle returns to its roost in an old growth spruce tree. One of the crows flies over to flush the eagle from its roost. I wonder if the crow’s squawking speech would translate, “How does that feel tough guy.” The eagle holds to its perch, sending up its own verbal abuse.
None of this ruckus disturbs a local song sparrow. The diminutive singer moves along side of us as we try to reach higher ground before the tide floods out the path back to the trailhead. Even though it could fit comfortably in my breast pocket, the sparrow shows no fear. It lands on an old piling just a few feet and stares us down like a sheriff about to tell two trouble makers to move along.
Judging by the bird activity near the North Douglas Boat Ramp, there is a lot of food lying around here. One eagle sits alone near the water line. At least three more call abuse upon it from nearby spruce trees. A murder of crows struts near the boat ramp until flushed by a patrol of the larger ravens. After one of the ravens swoops her, Aki keeps to the brush line.
One of the wonders of living in raven country is being able to hear the whoosh their wings make during flight. But you have to be close. This morning, Aki wishes to never hear the sound again.
A raven could knock the wind out of my poodle-mix if it cared to. With me around, there would be no point in such a display of malice. The raven would be chased off before it could do more than gloat. Besides, ravens like to tease dogs. They would rather pluck a bit of fur from Aki’s back than flatten her.