Category Archives: Harlequin Ducks

Messy Eaters

This morning, the weather offered little promise for good photographs or even a decent walk. Wind whipped raindrops around the yard as the little dog and I headed to the car. We drove out to the old Tlingit village site where an old growth forest offered some protection from the storm.

            It was almost cozy in the woods but inclement on the spit we had to pass over to reach Point Louisa. Three guys in heavy weather gear fished for silver salmon on the spit. Just off shore several harbor seals had more success harvesting salmon. 

            At the end of the spit we ducked into a sparce forest before reaching the point. On the other side of the woods we watched a trio of harlequin ducks sped across the water, heading toward Favorite Passage. A minute later they reversed course and returned to Auk Bay. 

            A loud croak made me look away from the ducks to where two Stellar sea lions seemed to be cuddling in the small waves. Another sea lion shot its head out of the water with a salmon in its jaws. It flung its head back and forth, trying to break the fish’s spine. Several gulls soon arrived to pick up the scraps flying from the sea lion’s mouth. They know that sea mammals are messy eaters. 

Aural Dramas

It is quiet in the forest. We can’t even hear the sound of wind whipping up waives on nearby Lynn Canal. That’s why the smack of a bark fragment hitting the beaver pond ice grabs my attention. After a second fragment joins the first one, I notice a faint tapping sound. It’s too weak to be made by the aggressive red breasted sapsucker. Looking up I spot the percussionist—a downy woodpecker. He is still tapping his way up the spruce tree as Aki and I round the pond and head toward the beach.

We hear a sharp crack—just one—as we leave the pond. I want to wait to see if the deer will reveal itself. Aki will have none of it. She has scents to check and pee messages to leave. We cross a small muskeg meadow before reaching the beach. It is dotted with tall pine snags with twisted branches that reach toward heaven like desperate saints. Fast moving crossbills appear and disappear on the higher branches. We are closer to the beach now so the sounds of surf mingle with the crossbill’s kip-kip calls. 

After a short swing along the beach, the trail crosses a headland recently hammered by a fierce wind. It downed or tipped over more than a half-dozen trees. Most were middle-aged hemlocks. One was a giant spruce. It didn’t snap off at the base or collapse onto the forest floor. It still reclines against another spruce with most of its roots exposed to the air. 

Wind and surf have forced off most of the ducks and all the gulls and scoters. Only the tiny harlequin and bufflehead remain in the cove, bobbing up and down on incoming waves. A murder of nervous crows overflies the ducks, lands for a few sections on a rocky ledge, and then returns to the air.   

A Half Hour of Wilderness

            Two adult bald eagles watch Aki and I walk out of old growth woods and onto a snow-covered beach.  Before we appeared they were probably watching ducks. There must be over a thousand of them just offshore: scoters, golden eyes, mallards, and my favorites—the harlequins. The golden eyes seem the most jumpy. In twos and threes they fly away, their wings imitating the maniacal call of Curley, one of the Three Stooges. The scoters are the most organized. Their large raft forms and reforms shapes like a American high school band at a football game. A half-dozen mallards watch all this from the beach. A few feet away, harlequins paddle with their heads plunged into the water. 

            I’m thankful for the chance to watch the ducks being ducks, not waterfowl made tense by eagle dives or aggressive dogs. But it is puzzling that the eagles haven’t tried pluck one of the unsuspecting harlequins from the water. 

            Aki’s having fun porpoising through the beach snow. She even ignores the siskins and thrush bouncing from limb to limb in the beachside alders. The little dog doesn’t object when we drop down onto bare section of the beach. The last flood tide has carried away the snow, leaving behind piles of severed seaweed. 

            Just after we find a set of fresh deer tracks, the first of 11 large dogs charges up to me. They are loose, but relatively well behaved. The dogs’ human handler carries a half-gallon sized bag for collecting their poop so he is not a yob. But any chance of spotting the deer is now gone. In seconds the dogs will be charging down the beach, stirring ducks, and maybe eagles to flight. We move on, saddened that the trail ahead, the one just transited by the dog pack, will have been swept clean of wild things. 

Wet Eagles and Slumping Ducks

I’ve never before seen the Auk Bay birds relax. The many dogs walking their humans on along the beach or using a parallel trail through the bordering old growth woods keep them on guard. Even when we are the first visitors of the day, the harlequin ducks will panic off the beach when they hear my footfalls. Those same harlequins stun me today by ignoring our appearance. 

            Seven of the party-colored ducks form a line on the beach, facing a noisy raft of goldeneye ducks that chatter and paddle just off shore. The harlequins slump with indifference. It takes the overflight of a bald eagle to flush the harlequins into the water. When a screen of alders blocks my duck views, I follow Aki told the old Auk village site. 

            In a few minutes we emerge from the trees and find a soaking-wet bald eagle squatting on the snow-covered beach. Later I will search where it landed for spot of blood or scrapes of meat and only find talon tracks and marks made by wing feathers dragged across the snow. I’ve seen sled dogs roll themselves dry in the snow after breaking through thin ice. Was that why the eagle landed on such an exposed section of beach? Did it dive unsuccessfully on one of the harlequins, dunking it self in the process?

            While Aki sniffs something on the trail, the eagle spots me and labors into the air. Like a heavily loaded airplane, it climbs into the air and then drops back onto the snow. On the following bounce it climbs upward as a shower of snow flies off its talons. By powering it meter long wings up and down, it finally breaks free. 

Reunion Walk

It took me a few minutes to find Aki so I could invite her on a walk. It was hard. She had hunkered herself far under a bed. The snow stopped an hour ago as did the wind. It was a degree above freezing. I wanted to tell the little dog that she’d enjoy the planned visit to Outer Point Trail.

            It was to be our first walk since my return from the north. It blew 90 knots the last time we walked together. Aki must have expected more of the same today. She shivered while we drove out to trailhead even as hot air from the car heater blew on her. Her mood changed when I parked. She squeaked and leaped onto the snow-covered ground. High winds and cold forgotten, she trotted ahead of me down the trail, tail a metronome. 

As we moved through the old growth I thought of the almost judgmental light of North Alaska that I had to squint into two days ago. It brought out beauty and clarity but little comfort. Today’s gray’s light is as comforting as a hug.

            As a light snow began to fall, we reached the beach. Rafts of ducks, harlequins and golden eyes, dived on feed. Ten meters away from the ducks, a seal surfaced and gave me the saddest stare—as sad as a boy last picked to play ball, a girl betrayed by her best friend. 

Foolish Pioneer

            It stops me dead in my tracks. Aki trots off to catch up with her doggie guest. As she disappears around the corner, I stare at the source of my distraction—a leafed-out blueberry bush. It’s almost January, you little fool. The lush, green plant doesn’t look out of place. At the bush’s base sorrel plants are yet to turn red. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s 40 degrees. Winter seems like a legend for old men to share with their grandkids.

            In a week the little dog and I might be struggling down this same North Douglas trail through deep snow. Then the precocious blueberry plant will suffer like a Dickensian orphan. Now, its roots are drinking in the rain.

Why

          Aki and I have just left the forest for a graveled beach. It was easy walking in the woods. Last night’s snow never penetrated the forest’s canopy. There is little snow on the beach. Most of it has been wiped away by the last high tide. Above a thick line of seaweed that marks the tide line, snow still occupies the hollows between gravel, dead beach grass and abandoned mussel shells. 

          The water offshore is clam, as if weighed down by low clouds that seem to touch the water’s surface. A few meters away from us a dozen gulls work to ignore the little dog and I. Twenty meters out, an equal number of harlequin ducks hunt for fish. After diving, one of the ducks calls out with a cry that could have been made by excited toddler on the playground. 

            Aki gives me a hard look, like she might to discourage me from musing about birds and the sounds they make. She doesn’t want to hear me ponder out loud why crows croak, eagles scream, gulls keen, and harlequins cry out with childish joy. 

So Calm

The rain forest is darker than the last time Aki and I visited. Then leaves still held their fall color. This morning it’s all bare branches and fallen leaves quickly being reduced to mush. Only the bottom hugging sorel retain color. On the drive to the trailhead I spotted two lines of sand hill cranes heading toward the forest. Now, mixed in with the noise of a passing prop plane, I can just make out their ratching calls. 

            Weeks of heavy rain have swollen the beaver pond and flooded parts of the trail.  The pond is empty of cranes or other birds. My eyes are drawn to the islands of golden-brown reflected in the pond water. Aki breaks ahead of me to circle around a submerged portion of the trail. I follow her to a beach that borders a small cove. Gulls and mallard ducks are the only things that disturb the flat-calm water. 

            There is something calming about an expanse of undisturbed water. If I had brought troubles or worry to this beach, they would soon be forgotten. We stroll down the beach, over a small headland, and onto another beach. Here harlequin and golden eye ducks work the water for food. The Chilkat Mountains, looking crisp with fresh snow, rise across Lynn Canal. 

Addition

I left the house this morning without brushing my teeth. Aki looked puzzled but still joined me in the car. Most days at this hour she’d still be curled up and asleep. A feeling, not a phone call or Facebook tip drew me out the door. I just knew that something magical was happening where the woods of northern Douglas Island touched the sea.

            We looked without success for whale spouts in Fritz Cove on the drive to the north end of Douglas Island. No orca dorsal fins broke the surface of Lynn Canal when we passed False Outer Point. If we were to find anything special it had to be hiding in the woods. 

            At this hour I was not surprised to find an empty parking lot at the Outer Point trailhead.  Bird song, punctuated by raven squawks and the hammering of red-breasted sapsuckers provided the soundtrack for our walk.  The beaver pond was gray with patches of sky blue as the rising sun weakened the persistent cloud cover. 

            When Aki followed me onto the beach, we spotted a greater yellowlegs sandpiper in the shallows. An adult bald eagle seemed to be contemplating life from its perch on an offshore rock.  On other rocks harlequin ducks slept or stretched. 

The mountains bordering Lynn Canal, beautified by late winter snow, emerged from cloud cover. All the things we experienced—the nesting bird songs, woodpecker tapping, the sandpiper (first of the year for me), the contemplative eagle, and whitened mountains—were enough to draw us from our beds. But the magic of the moment was provided by early morning solitude, unshattered by the works or words of man. 

Missing the Kings

False Outer Point is empty today. No one casts out hooks bated with herring off the rocks. That is not surprising this early in the spring. May, not April, is usually the month for fishing King Salmon here. But this year, because of low salmon returns, no one will be allowed to fish for kings next month. The collapse of the king salmon run will hurt the eagles, killer whales, seals and sea lions that usually target the fat, oily king salmon each spring. It will disappoint human fishermen, especially those from the Tlingit and Pilipino communities who rely upon salmon to feed their families. 

The little dog and I round the empty point, trying to ignore two eagles bickering above us in a shoreline spruce tree. A line of waterfowl, maybe scoters, fly up and down Lynn Canal. They change relative position constantly. In each photo I take of them, their bodies look like notes in a musical measure. 

We leave the beach and climb up onto a headland and spot a small raft of harlequin ducks tucked into a small bay. A few of the parti-colored birds stand on the beach. I’ve never seen harlequins surrender the protection of the ocean. I wonder if the same threat that keeps the scoters in motion has beached the harlequins.