Winter teased us with a few days of snow and cold. Now, like the fickle lover, it has left the rain forest for America’s East Coast. It’s mid-November and we are facing a week’s worth of wet storms. Aki and I suit up and head out to the Sheep Creek Delta.
Just a month ago we had to dodge eagles, step over salmon carcasses, but could tiptoe up to herons. The birds were there to feast on the wealth of wild food brought by the salmon spawn. Now all that has been washed into Gastineau Channel by rain and big autumn tides. This morning, only mallards and gulls remain.
The incoming tide shrinks the beach, creating isolated islands of gravel where the birds rest. The gulls squeal and the mallards cackle but otherwise they seem very comfortable in each other’s presence. It’s like they have formed a seasonal family for company until the salmon return.
This walk is Aki’s choice. The past two mornings, the little dog had hung back when it was time to get into the car. Yesterday I promised her that today we would start from the house. Aki trots with purpose down and our street and straight through the intersection where we would have to turn left to the take the Perseverance Trail. She wants to go urban. No waterfalls or noisy creek today.
Sunshine slants across Downtown Juneau, backlighting the leaves of maple trees imported to remind transplanted Juneauites of crisp fall days back home. The sun, a rare visitor this time of the year, has drawn people out of their studio apartments. They sit on steps and sidewalks smoking cigarettes made with tobacco or the now legal marijuana.
Ravens patrol overhead, sending down condemning croaks when not happy with they see. One homeless guy croaks back, engaging a raven in a harsh duet. When an immature bald eagle flies near, the raven brakes off to chase the much bigger bird away.
An immature eagle lands on a midstream gravel bar and eyes a chunk of something pink and fleshy. In seconds a raven joins him. The eagle takes possession of the goody with a talon and starts ripping off a bite sized piece. Raven uses a bowing little dance to get the eagle to share. When that doesn’t work, it squawks out a coarse protest song. The song goes on and on until the raven lifts off toward another source of food.
Aki was back in the car before the eagle landed. We are both soaked with rain that just stopped pounding the Sheep Creek Delta. The clouds now drift up against the flanks of Sheep Mountain to be shredded by tall spruce. I brought the dog here so I could search for heron. We found none. Aki tried to keep me from crossing exposed sections of the beach. She prefers to sniff along the grassy dune that separates the beach from the old ore house. There she can hide from eagles.
We walked to dune’s end where gold miners park their sluice boxes. The sluices sit in boats made of salvaged wrecks, foam blocks, and scrap wood. Soft delta sand is shoveled into the sluice box, which extracts the gold. The miners are driven to stand in cold water in the rain for hours by dreams of wealth or perhaps the simple desire to get something for nothing, like the eagle-bothering raven.
Like the miners, the eagles and other delta birds are always on the make. When not searching the riverbank and beach for carcass scraps, they make half-hearted passes over rafts of ducks, driving most into flight. Even the tiny swallows are always working an angle. This morning one gave me the stink eye for distracting it from harvesting beach grass seeds.
Three ravens watch as we enter a section of second growth woods drained by a salmon stream. One glides just over my head and lands on a spruce bough. The raven is now watching a dozen silver salmon, sides long faded to the color of ash, fight for spawning rights in the stream. Two men wearing the cast-off winter gear of the homeless look to be trying to grab the fish with their bare hands. Nailed to a tree just above their heads is a “No Sport Fishing” sign. The little dog and I walk on almost secure in the knowledge that the men are no match for the frisky fish.
The trail crosses several branches of the salmon stream and then takes us onto a meadow with grass transitioning from summer green to fallow brown. We pass a patch flattened by a sleeping bear. It probably had better luck catching one of the spawning salmon than the two homeless guys.
Aki tenses when we hear two shots coming from the nearby landfill. A dozen eagles circle above us before settling in their usual day roosts on the forested hill that rises above the meadow. The meadow pushes up against low-income housing developments and one of our major highways. A kilometer away, men at a high security prison are just finishing breakfast. That doesn’t stop us from enjoying the solitude that comes of only having to share the large meadow with eagles and ravens and bears.
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.
Sometimes rain forest bald eagles seem as common as pigeons. A few weeks ago over 150 eagles gathered in trees and on the exposed wetlands across from the Juneau salmon hatchery. They were waiting for the next pulse of chum salmon to arrive. Aki and I see one or two bald eagles almost every time we hike in the summer. This morning, while still in the Treadwell Woods, we hear the screeching of the one that hangs out on the roof of the old mine ventilation shaft at Sandy Beach. A higher pitched call comes from a point deeper in the woods.
I lead the little poodle-mix toward the later sound. Soon we are at the base of a tall cottonwood tree. White eagle scat is spattered on the understory plants beneath the tree. One of those responsible for the mess sits alone in the nest of sticks its parents built in a crotch of cottonwood branches. It’s an eaglet that has grown out of its downy coat. Fuzzy black feathers cover its head. Soon it will fledge.
The eaglet gives us a fierce look and then turns until we can only see its back. Aki and I walk under the tree and then drop down through the woods and onto Sandy Beach. The two resident ravens watch us from atop splinted wharf pilings. Down the channel one of the eaglet’s parents balances on the roof ridge of the ventilation shaft. The other one must be hunting for junior.
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.