While Aki sniffs a pile of beaver dung, I stare at a yellow pond lily flower—the only strong show of color on this misty day. The little dog and I are both startled by a disturbance on the pond. It sounds violent, almost as dramatic as a beaver-tail slap. Something the size of a beaver’s head is moving with speed just beneath the surface of the water. But what emerges is a mallard hen surrounded by three of fuzzy chicks.
Last summer an eagle and a great blue heron stared down at the same mallard hen and her chicks as they tried to hide on a grassy beach. The number of chicks dropped each subsequent visit to the pond. Water now covers the beach so the hen has only pond reeds for hiding for her little family. I suspect the commotion we just witnessed was started by a low swooping predator.
Aki moves down the trail but I stay, trying to discern the duck family through a blind of reeds. It’s hard to see past the reeds because of the sparkling circles of rain water that brighten the stalk of each reed like Christmas lights.
Deeper in the forest, a raven chick screams for food. Both parents belt out even harsher tones but in a lower register. The chick will not stop squawking. I wonder if one of the raven parents had swooped down on the mallard family and failed to snatch on of the chicks. If it had gabbed one, all would be quiet in the ravens’ nest. Or maybe the duck baby was grabbed and delivered to baby raven and it was complaining about having to eat another fuzzy chick rather than French fries salvaged from beneath a picnic table.
This morning we have wind-driven rain and a sky full of swarming scavengers. Just a few meters above the tree tops ravens and eagles juke away from and dive on each other. The ravens are making all the noise. Hampered by my rain-spotted glasses I first assume that a raven gang is trying to drive one eagle away from the forest and the river beach it fronts. After wiping the glasses down with a handkerchief, I can see more than one eagle.
In less than a month, king salmon will rest in nearby river eddies before making their final push to the spawning grounds. Pink, chum, and silver salmons will follow. For most of the summer, the nutrient-rich carcasses of spawned out salmon will drift up onto the beach. Ravens and eagles tough enough to establish nests along the beach will have more than enough food for their chicks.
Eagles are doing most of the nest building. One eagle tries to keep a clump of old man’s beard lichen in its beak as it barrel rolls to escape two ravens. A third eagles takes advantage of the distraction to carry a cottonwood twig to its nest site. The members of the two bird clans are having a free-for-all fight over nest building materials.
Ravens fill the Treadwell Woods with croaks, beeps, chortles, and complaints as a large family approaches. Have the big birds taken on the job of warning of the approach of the infected? Feeling like a leper myself, I pick up Aki and move to the far side of the trail, establishing a safe space for the family to pass.
Given the weather, I am surprised to meet any humans here. Yesterday’s clear skies are obscured by a squall. Compact pellets of snow bounce onto the trail. I’m here for the eagles. A mated pair keep a nest in a tree overlooking the collapsed glory hole. Thanks to the noisy ravens we’ll never hear an eagle. They may also be the reason why we will never see one.
When we drop down on it from the woods, Sandy Beach is empty except for ravens and one self-assured belted kingfisher. It lands on a nearby wharf piling as a raven dances and sings on the beach. Raven continues the performance from the top of another wharf piling. Assuming the posture of a petitioning lover, he boxes the compass, croaking to the north, east, west, and south. Kingfisher flies off but only as far as another piling wharf from where he listens to raven finish his atonal love song.
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.