I’m in a stare down with a raven that has just stopped searching a mound of dirty snow for food. It turned its head to focus an eye on me. I’m on my way to pick up an order of garlic eggplant from a Chinese restaurant. Even though I am hungry from skiing and the heavily spiced eggplant will melt in my mouth, I stop to return the raven’s stare.
If he had grabbed me with a stare while I was on my way out of the restaurant, I’d assume that he was lobbying for one of my fortune cookies. But my hands are empty. He looks like he’s seen many Alaska winters. Perhaps he is a wise one, gathering information about humans to pass on to newly hatched chicks. This raven is only one of many birds that have recently locked eyes with me. I am yet to come with an acceptable explanation for any of my near-bird experiences.
I wish I’d seen this or any raven while Aki and I skied this morning along the shore of Mendenhall Lake. But the conditions were wrong for bird watching. A glacial wind was scouring the lake ice of snow. It blew away the swan family we had visited on recent visits. Even the kittiwakes that made such a racket while gathering on the river waters were absent. Smart birds, like ravens, were hunting for scraps on wind-sheltered sections of the wetlands or mooching for snacks in parking lots.
It’s a day for corvids. I’m talking about the birds, not the virus. Three Stellar’s blue jays watch the little dog and I pass under their spruce tree roast, looking as unaffected by our passage as a Buckingham Castle guard. Without so much as a scolding from the diminutive corvids, we continue down the trail to salt water.
The usual mallard gang hunts for food in the Fritz Cove shallows. One hen bursts off the water and flies over to a nearby kettle pond. She stands in shallow water that reflects her beauty back to her. The fit mallard looks sleek with not one feather out of place. While I wonder what flushed her from the salt water, the rest of the mallards from her raft panic into flight. Looking up I see the cause—a bald eagle that just landed in the top of a nearby spruce.
Aki, not a fan of eagles, is happy when we move down the trail to the mouth of the stream. There, a murder of crows fidgets from one bank to the other and back. Some find purpose when they spot a solitary raven skulking on the branch of a driftwood tree that has become stuck in the middle of the creek.
I expect a noisy squabble. The crows raise their young in a nearby forest. They consider ravens trespassers. But only a few of the crows land on the raven’s driftwood hang out. Even these seem more curious than outraged.
The ravens sound angry. Aki and I can hear them croak and complain as we walk along Switzer Creek. It drains a diminutive old growth forest that is bordered by a recovering clear cut. Forty or fifty ravens are hurling abuse from posts inside the forest canopy. One of the big scavengers shows itself only to disappear when I lift my camera.
Snow still covers the forest ground but the creek runs free. The pale-yellow shoots of three skunk cabbages have emerged a few centimeters above their mother plant. It feels like spring is checking out the woods but in a cautious way in case winter is just outside taking a smoke break. Aki and I are over-dressed.
The little dog cools off by rolling in wet snow. I take off my winter coat. We walk out of the woods and onto a snow-covered meadow, squinting from sun glare bouncing off the snow. Three ravens and an eagle leave the canopy. The eagle tries to settle into a tall spruce snag. More ravens show up to drive it away.
Aki and I head back to forest. Before entering it, we stop long enough to watch the gang of ravens chase the eagle. The swirl higher and higher over the meadow, rising above the tree line on the slope of Blackerby Ridge until they are just dark silhouettes against mountain snow.
The tide is out at Sandy Beach. A pair of adult bald eagles are hunched in the branches of a tall cottonwood tree. The stiff breeze powers through their neck feathers, giving each a bald spot. If the eagles turn around, they could watch convention of ravens convening near the waterline.
Several inches of new snow brighten the beach above the high tide line. The snow is dimpled by the prints of dogs and their humans. A raven flies toward Aki as she investigates a promising set of prints. It flies low over her head. The startled dog leaps in surprise as the raven circles her and lands two meters away. Is this the same raven that tries to play tag with the poodle-mix at Sheep Creek? If not, work must have gotten out in Raven’s ville that Aki is quick to take the bait.
When Aki ignores the raven, it circles me a few times, lands on the sand, and struts away like the rich man on a Monopoly board. Three different ravens squawk as they fly over the channel. They fly across the Slide Creek avalanche chute, now burdened by the runout of a fresh avalanche.
Today I’d be reduced to talking about the weather if not for the raven. Even though channel wind drove rain and snow into its side, the big black bird perched on the top of an old beach piling, lifted its massive beak skyward and croaked out an announcement of our arrival on the Sheep Creek delta.
The little dog ignored the raven, concentrating instead on checking scents left on this popular dog walking beach. We walked along a grass covered dune, keeping the wind, and I thought, the raven at our backs. But it was waiting for us after we crossed a flooding stream. I expected the raven to keep a respectful distance between itself and us. Instead it walked toward Aki, rocking from side to side, turning every fourth step into a hop, swishing its tail in what I took to be a provocative manner.
Aki mocked charged the raven, which flew a few meters down the beach. In less than a minute it was waddling its way to the little dog. One of the smartest of birds, the raven could have been teasing my poodle-mix. But it could have had darker intentions. Aki didn’t wait to find out. She growled again. Perhaps bored with its game of taunt-the-poodle, the raven flew off.
Aki doesn’t think that this is a good idea. From the forest edge she watches me work across a frozen marsh toward Peterson Creek. I skirt inch thick plates of ice left on the march by the last high tide to reach the water. Two wind blown spruce form a bridge over the creek. Maybe the little dog is worried that I will use the fallen spruce to reach the opposite bank.
I’ve no desire to cross to the other side. We have already explored it, using a man-made bridge. We crossed it to check an eagle’s nest near the forest’s edge to learn whether it has been reoccupied. It was empty. So was the northern half of Stephen’s passage. Snow squalls obscured our view of Admiralty Island, except for a line of snow-covered peaks that glowed through the grey clouds. Near Young’s Bay, an out of season salmon seine boat chugged along the Admiralty shore.
Aki and I are walking up Main Street when a raven flies over our heads and lands in the middle of the snow covered street. It digs at something the color of strawberry licorice until a car approaches. It flies away just before the car squashes it flat. The raven returns seconds later, joined by several more of its brothers. Soon the surrounding trees fill up with a dozen more ravens.
Seeing the ravens feeding on something the color of human blood reminds me that in addition to being clowns and tricksters, the big birds are voracious, sometimes scary scavengers. Days later, across from Perseverance Theatre, I stumble on another gang of ravens. Hours before city ploughs had cleared away snow that cheated theatre goers of needed parking spaces. They must have stirred up something tasty.