Category Archives: Dan Branch

Mostly Heard, Not Seen

It’s June, a month for lots of bird action on Mendenhall River wetlands, at least in an ordinary year. It’s also the season for wild flowers. Wide swaths of shooting stars form magenta islands on the sea of green grass that borders the river. Buttercups and purple lupine flowers look like they are competing with each other for growth space.

            The birds are more to be heard than seen on this sunny day. The subtle tsit-tsit-tsit song of Savannah sparrows surround Aki and I as we cross the grassland. I begin to doubt whether we see any birds and then spot one of the Savannahs frozen in place on the top of an otherwise bare tree chunk. It gives the little dog and I a hard look as we pass buy.

            At the end of walk, as we move along a wire fence, I spot another bird frozen in place. It’s a silent American robin standing at attention on the fence. It looks like a guardsman at a British army post. Until now, the only robins we have seen this year landed just ahead of us on the trail, then flew off just as we reached it. Seconds later it land a little up the trail to lead us away from its nest.  This robin looked like he’d pull out a gun if we tried to get too close.

Have They Hatched Yet?

The eagle is perched on the top of an old mining tower. 100 years ago, a similar tower delivered fresh air in to undersea mine tunnels. Then the mine flooded out. I wonder if eagles rested on a mining tower before the flood.

            It’s low tide now so the tower is standing high and dry on the exposed beach. Maybe that’ why the eagle takes flight as I approached. He would be safer at high tide when only someone in a boat could reach the tower. More likely, the eagle has been called back to his’ partner’s nest.

            After leaving the beach, I follow Aki up a steep trail. At the top, you can look up at an eagle’s nest built in the crotch of a burley cottonwood tree. There, tucked in like a grandmother, the eagle stares at us from deep inside his nest.

Keeping Undercover

It’s June, a month for lots of bird action on Mendenhall River wetlands, at least in an ordinary year. It’s also the season for wild flowers. Wide swaths of shooting stars form magenta islands on the sea of green grass that borders the river. Buttercups and purple lupine flowers look like they are competing with each other for growth space.

            The birds are more to be heard than seen on this sunny day. The subtle tsit-tsit-tsit song of Savannah sparrows surround Aki and I as we cross the grassland. I begin to doubt whether we see any birds and then spot one of the Savannahs frozen in place on the top of an otherwise bare tree chunk. It gives the little dog and I a hard look as we pass buy.

            At the end of walk, as we move along a wire fence, I spot another bird frozen in place. It’s a silent American robin standing at attention on the fence. It looks like a guardsman at a British army post. Until now, the only robins we have seen this year landed just ahead of us on the trail, then flew off just as we reached it. Seconds later it land a little up the trail to lead us away from its nest.  This robin looked like he’d pull out a gun if we tried to get too close.

Looking for Sparkles

In a few hours the sky will clear, letting the sunshine light up the Douglas Mountain Range. The sun will also replace the subtitle colors of Gastineau Meadow with richer tones. I’ve taken many pictures to record that beauty. But I’m out here before the storm ends, being soaked by a soft rain, because sometimes raindrops can deliver more sparkle than sunshine.

Hammering Dahl Porpoise

I thought long and hard this morning about skipping my daily walk with Aki. She probably wouldn’t mind. The older poodle spent most of the time since breakfast curled up under her humans’ bed. But she finally let me dress her in a warm jacket and then wait at the door as I pulled on my boots.

            We drove out to Auk Bay where the trail runs through a thick, old growth forest. That can protect us from most of the rain pounding the town. It did. But I dashed out of the forest for the beach after spotting a small clan of Dahl porpoise in Auk Bay. Normally, the guys disclose little when they feed in the bay. This morning, some of them fly out of the water and then crash back. The noise of their jumps drives a small school of salmon down the beach to a small bay. As they do whenever being chased, the salmon form a tight ball just off shore. In seconds the porpoise slam into the ball and snatch fish with their bills. Seconds later, they disappear deeper into the bay.

Osprey

Several days of heavy rain have raised the local creek and lake waters to near flood stage. Parts of the trail that Aki and I are using will be flooded. But she can swim and I am wearing good quality Wellington-style boots. Thanks to the messy trail we’ll have the forest, beaches, and meadows to ourself. No one else wants to deal with the swampy trail.

            First we have to cross twenty feet of trail, now covered with 10 inches of water. No big deal for the little dog, more of a challenge for her human charge. But soon we reach a mostly dry trail that circles the beaver pond. I look for beavers, ducks, and song birds and find only silence.  

            We reach the beach, where usually this time of year we spot eagles, gulls, and a small flock of harlequin ducks. Today I can only find a beach raven and one gull that sits on a tiny rock island, just offshore. Then, what I first think is an immature bald arcs above us then moves over the little bay. From time to time, it pulls itself to a stop 80 feet over the water, hovers, then resumes its cruise. At least twice, the bird dived onto a fish in the water. Once it passed close enough for me to see his solid white belly and a black marking strip on its head. It’s an osprey, a rare hunter in the southeast rainforest.

            We watch the osprey dive into the water several times and then fly away over Outer Point. I remember an osprey that nested near the Aniak River when my wife and I lived in the Alaska Bush. One day, the village priest talked me into taking him silver salmon fishing on the Aniak. Father Andy hoped to catch a silver large enough to win the annual salmon derby. He needed the prize money to pay for some church repairs. A bald eagle dived toward my boat, trying to escape an upset osprey. The eagle pulled up before hitting me or the priest. The osprey snatched my baseball cap, then dropped it into the river. After recovering my hat, I steered the boat upriver from the osprey’s nest. Father and I both caught silver salmon, but none nearly as big as the wining fish. That was caught by the town’s evangelical minster.

Rain Makes The Flowers Shine

“Why are we out here, little dude?” She can barely hear me over the sound of rain pounding into the surrounding trees. Then it stops. The wet product of the storm still weighs down each flower. But it also makes them sparkle. Aki and I continue along Fish Creek. Low clouds give us a very limited view of the ocean and mountains. But it gives the flowers sparkling rain drops.  

Ignoring the Rain

I didn’t want to leave the house this rainy morning. The heavy, pounding rain discouraged me but not the poodle dog. To please her, we headed out to the end of the North Douglas Road for a short walk to the ocean.

            The rain had almost stopped when we reached the start of the trail. A few hundred yards in, we came to the Peterson Creek bridge. Pounding rain had flooded the Creek and made reaching the beach trail tricky. The bridge itself looked okay. But creek water had flooded over ten feet of meadow trail touching the western edge of it. The two thick planks that normally provide a safe bridge to the trail were floating on the creek’s flood waters.

            Feeling like a tight rope walker, I struggled to keep my balance as I used the boards to reach safe ground. Aki trotted calmly behind me.

            Low clouds and rain softened the view of Admiralty Island and the channel between us and it. But I could still see an immature bald eagle standing unprotected from the storm. Later, we saw three female deer hammering tall grass at the edge of a different meadow. Like the eagle, they ignored me, like they tried to ignore the rain.

It’s About Time

“The rain must be keeping hikers at home this morning,” I told Aki while backing our little car out of the driveway. On warm, dry summer mornings, I can watch tourists and locals stroll past the house, dressed for a walk up the Perseverance Trail. Today, none passed while I drank my morning coffee.

            We drove to North Douglas, where I parked the car in the almost empty Outer Point trail parking lot. The folks that came in the other parked car had probably taken the dry trail to the beach. Not worried about soaking my boots, I lead Aki down the other trail—the one partially flooded by beavers.

            The rain ramped up as we neared the beaver pond, slamming onto the trail. Drops from the shower created circular patterns where they struck the pond water. Aki and I walked down a twenty foot stretch of flooded trail and onto to a dry stretch that ran parallel to a huge beaver dam. I’ve used this trail, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter for over 20 years and never seen a beaver. That changed this morning. A large adult swam slowly along the dam, ignoring the trail. I took a few photos and then, like a greedy idiot, climbed onto the dam so I could get a better view of the animal that helped to maintain it.

            When I moved a little closer, the beaver turned its head and gave me a hard look. Then it slapped the pond water with its tail and dived under the pond water. After giving it a few minutes to reappear, I followed Aki down the trail and onto a very bare beach. We crossed it and walked on a rarely exposed pathway to a Shaman Island. In an hour or so, when the incoming tide is in flood, the path would disappear.

            Usually, this time of year, ducks or even geese would be floating on either sides of the island bridge. But we only saw a single seal, six gulls and, which is cool, a pair of oyster catchers. On this rainy morning, it would hard to spot such dark feathered birds on the exposed tidal flats if not for their orange beaks. They provided the only bright color on the otherwise bland ocean scrap.  

Focused Hunters

Rain starting pounding on the house as I got ready for this morning’s hike. Even though she couldn’t see the rain while still inside the house, Aki, the dog, looked discouraged, like a dog who would be happiest staying warm and dry at home. But she still waited at the door was I pulled on boots. Happily, the rain had just stopped so we didn’t get soaked while walking the car. It started back up as we backed out of the driveway.

            The tide was completely out when we reached the Fish Creek Delta. It was a minus three foot tide, one of the lowest of the year. A dozen bald eagles had assembled close together in a shallow water section of the Mendenhall River. Every once in a while they would burst into the air and then drop back to the river shallows.

            Rather than search for food exposed on the wetlands by the retreating tide, three adult heron were feeding up river, very near our trail. They must be hunting productive water because they didn’t notice us until were thirty feet away. Then, one panicked into flight and landed at the edge of a small stream fifty feet away. The other herons soon joined her. They spread out until each was a dozen feet from the other two. Then, they returned their attention to the hunt.