Aki starts to whine after I sit on a driftwood stump. She raises the pitch of her plea as I rest my telephoto lens on the trunk of another driftwood log. Across the Mendenhall River, the great blue heron that I have been stalking turns its head to find out who is raising a ruckus. I take several pictures and abandon the perfect hide.
Aki, who had been shivering while she whined, leads me back to the trail. She goes into a tail-dropping cringe every time I turn to look at the heron. The blue-gray water of the river captures the reflection of the long-necked bird like it does the surrounding mountains. Just upriver from the heron, a female bufflehead duck swims across the reflected avalanche chutes of Blackerby Ridge.
Downriver, a bald eagle stands on the top of its own driftwood stump. It watches 100 Vancouver Canada geese fly by. Rather than climbing, the geese glide to land just out of our sight. . Imagining how the chestnut and black birds would standout against the newly snow-covered wetlands, I lead the little dog toward them. At the end of the trail, we spot the geese on a snow-free sandbar on the opposite ride of the river. They blend in. If they hadn’t been cackling, we would never have found them.
We have just turned our back on a great blue heron, leaving it standing tall among gulls on a gravel bar. The heron was looking toward the glacier, not the gulls or Aki, when we slipped around a rocky headland.
Now we are walking along a strip of gravel between a forested island and Fritz Cove. Inside the island crows and several bald eagles bicker and scream. Apparently having enough of the crow’s harassment, two of the eagles fly out of the trees and over our heads, startling ducks and gulls into flight. While the little dog and watch the eagles fly towards the Chilkat Mountains when we hear a sound like a rock plunking into the water.
Looking toward the sound, we spot a belted kingfisher shooting out of the water. It lands on an offshore rock just as another plunk sounds. This one is made by the first bird’s mate. The first guy flits onto another rock, drawing attention away from the other bird. It stands in profile with its huge beak pointing down the beach. Each time we move a few meters away from the second bird, the first one glides down the beach. When we are thirty meters from the second bird, the first guy circles over the water and reunites with its mate.
I wonder why the Creator burdened the diminutive kingfisher with such a massive beak that looks so like that of the heron. The spear-shaped beak is a well-balanced weapon on the large heron’s head. It forms a projectile the heron can shoot forward with its powerful neck muscles. The kingfisher must use his whole body as a spear, driving beak-first after fish swimming feet below the surface.
Aki and I are thirty miles North of home, slipping between rain-soaked blueberry bushes. More deer than men have used the path. It leads to a chute that bottoms out on a rocky beach. Like the herder that she is, the little dog waits for me to move onto the beach before she joins me.
I don’t know what Aki wants out of this walk. She seems satisfied with the smells on offer so far. Me, I hope to see a whale or seal or sea lion. I’d like to watch a heron hunt the shallows or spot a swan cuddled up in beach grass.
As if it read my mind, a harbor seal steams toward us, throwing up a bow wake as it nears the beach. It slips under the water when only a few meters from the beach. We won’t see it again. Well little dog, at least we saw one animal on the list. I don’t think Aki even saw the seal. When it appeared, she was snuffling along the edge of an old campfire ring.
We move back into the woods and follow another informal trail to a small rocky shelf that overlooks a pocket bay. Aki whines while I try to find the source of splashing coming from the bay. Twenty or thirty tiny fish burst out of the water, which is swirling to the movement of unseen predators. The scene repeats five or six more times. I can just make out pieces of the predator rising above the water. I assume it’s a winter king salmon feasting on baitfish. At home, in the pictures of the hunt that I took are enlarged by the computer, the predator will look more snake than fish.
We return to the car on trail that takes us up and over a forested hill and onto a tidal meadow where I’ve seen heron hunt for frogs. Aki flushes one that was feeding feet from the trail. It is considerate enough to only fly thirty meters away. Check another one off the must-see list. The heron eventually flies to just above where a stream drains into a salt chuck. On the shore of the brackish little lake, a swan cuddles in the beach grass just inches away from a brace of mallards.
It froze hard last night. Early this morning frost covered the wetlands. Aki and I missed the show while we waited for the fog to burn off. Now only pockets of frost meadow remain. The sun has already reduced the frost to dew on most of the wetlands. As it thaws, the trail mud turns greasy.
Patches of fog still cling to the surrounding hills. Otherwise we have blue skies. The little dog and I squint when the trail makes us face the sun. Maybe this is why she throws on the brakes when we reach a trail that would take us back to the car. Maybe the almost 13 year-old is feeling her age.
After Aki sends her brief strike we walk along the Mendenhall River. I had been scanning the river for herons without success. We’ve yet to see any water birds or land birds. A gang of waterdogs approaches from downriver and I wonder if they are responsible for the bird apocalypse.
Looking for another source of beauty, I lead the little dog down onto the beach and find my self five meters from a heron. It looks as awkward and I feel. It is airborne before Aki even realizes it was there.
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.
The dying has begun at Fish Creek. Ravens and eagles are cheering the process along. Five ravens bickered with each other for salmon scraps on the pedestrian bridge. One is trying to munch down on a salmon cheek while the other hurl abuse at it. I expect Aki to drag her feet but she trots right over the bridge. Maybe the presence of one of her other humans has given her courage.
Dog and pink salmon battle for spawning space beneath the bridge. Earlier arrivals float onto gravel bars to become food for the scavenger birds.
We walk down stream the pond where half-a-dozen eagles watch the fins of newly arrived pink salmon ripple the pond’s surface. I’ve seen eagles lift small salmon from the water but these guys seem content to wait until the pinks die and wash to shore.
On the way to the stream mouth, we walk between 7-foot tall fireweed stalks. Some have already stopped flowering. They release seedcases as fluffy as down that ride on this morning’s light breeze across the stream.
Three great blue herons have parked themselves on a gravel bar at the stream mouth. They aren’t fishing or even looking for fish to catch. They just squint into the sun, apparently waiting for Godot.
Aki ignores the chum salmon splashing beneath the Fish Creek bridge. She doesn’t even flinch when one of the ten-pound fish slaps the water with its tail. While one of the chums rolls on its side and uses it tail to dig out a depression in the creek bed to hold its eggs Aki keeps her nose just millimeters from the bridge deck. She doesn’t give up on the scent until we cross the bridge and start down toward the creek mouth.
The little dog and I have kept away from the creek since the king salmon arrived. A chance to catch one of the largest of salmons drew many fishermen to the creek to snag one of the big fish. The kings have died out or moved up the creek to spawn. This is the time of the less tasty chum salmon. Only two men fish the pond when we arrive. Fresh chum salmon leap from the water. Two great blue heron watch the action from pond-side spruce trees.
The heron surprise me by leaving the safety of their roosts and glide toward a nearby pond beach. Aki ignores the long-necked birds, like she ignored the chum salmon. Instead she stares at me watching the herons. She might be silently pleading me to give the dinosaur-like birds a wide berth and return to the bridge so she can again inhale the intriguing smells on the bridge. Rather than attack the little dog or me, the herons fly a few meters down the beach. We swing into the woods, round the pond, and walk down a trail lined with aging fireweed stalks.
Diminutive sparrows flitter about the trail margins. One tries to land in the top of a fireweed. When the stalk bends toward the ground, the sparrow finds a more secure roost on a stunted spruce. After landing the sparrow, as plump as a stuffed toy, glares at the little poodle-mix and I. It shows less fear of us than the long-beaked herons did.
We will see dozens of sparrows bursting from the grass like grasshoppers when we reach the stream mouth. We’ll see the heron twice more. Both of them will fly into the top of a spruce tree normally occupied by bald eagles. Then they will try fishing in shallow stream rapids until a belted kingfisher harasses them into flight, a bird as small as the sparrow and just as brave.