Some Sundays, when wet, wispy clouds cling to the Douglas Mountain Ridge but refuse to release the day’s predicted dump of rain, Aki and I wrap up in winter gear and walk down to the humpback whale statute. It provides a target for birds and people, and a passage for the poodle to search for scent.
The big iron whale statute flies nose-first out of a tiny people park, looking out of place so near the Douglas Island Bridge, state office buildings, and cheap-by-the-week apartments. After giving the whale a quick glance, Aki and start across a wooden walkway. We are alone except for a small gang of ravens. Most are jumpy. But one, perhaps one of ravens that nests in our neighborhood, doesn’t react negatively as we walk past it. It just turns calmly in our direction and nods.
Aki and I are home after a whippy walk through Downtown Juneau. It was a morning for appreciating the black and white shapes of neighborhood trees and mountains. Except for one dense strip of Franklin Street loaded with bars and homeless folks waiting for lunch, we saw little until we walked onto the downtown cruise ship dock.
Gulls lined the dock railings in a posture similar to that of the hungry pre-lunch crowd over at the homeless shelter. But one raven landed near us. It waddled across a decorative, if tiny piece of grass, stopping often to scream out a complaint. On this low-light winter day, all the screaming photos I took of it were blurred. But twice, the crusty gull moved until I could clearly see its profile and froze so my camera could capture the wild-bird distain it had with town on this wind-blown day.
“Aki. How long has it. Been since snow whitened our street?” The little dog ignores the question. She’s too busy following a new scented trail. We are heading towards sea level where this time of winter the lights along the cruise ship dock are always burning.
There is no wind to confuse the snowflakes. The resulting white cloud softens the abrupt edges of office buildings. It feels like we are trapped in a rich person’s snow globe.
The usual cloud of ravens is waiting for us when we arrive on the dock. A few minutes ago, Aki threw on the brakes so I am carrying her in my parka-covered arms. This seems to have upset the ravens, who circle around us a few times before gathering around a snow covered tree. Some seemed to be flirting. Others pouting. One roosts high in the tree to resolve any disputes.
Winter came early to this capital town. Snow covered our yard weeks ago and hasn’t been washed away by rain. The weather service predicts five new inches of new snow this afternoon. Aki and I try to sneak in a cruise of Downtown before the storm hits. We work our way up Gastineau Avenue. It’s already snowing now. White flakes collect on the top edges of gray alder limbs, making them look bright against the storm-grey clouds.
Ravens are waiting for us after we leave Gastineau and work our way over to the cruise ship docks. By now the new snow has formed big lumps on my boots. It makes me walk like a raven, rocking from side to side and I try to move forward without falling over.
One of the ravens flies over so Aki will chase it. Aki growls but won’t chase, even after the raven takes flight. It lands a few away and looks a little put out. A half dozen other ravens sulk while we pass. One, who might not have seen us approach, flutters its feathers, making snowflakes fly.
Aki and I are using the whale boardwalk to cross wetlands in front of Downtown Juneau. Eagles used to roost on the barren spruce trees installed to serve as bird perches. In no time the ravens and crows chased the eagles off.
Now, the crows still fly off when my little dog and I approach. But the ravens, they act like we had been sent there to entertain them. They fly low in front of us and then, in twos or threes, land in one of to the barren trees. One might even drop on the boardwalk in front of to seduce Aki to chase it. My dog no longer takes the bait.
Today rain has kept most of the people off the boardwalk so the ravens pay us special attention. After one tries to induce Aki to chase her off the boardwalk, it joins two other ravens on a nearby barren tree to preen.
I was prepared to walk through heavy rain. It seemed the only way to reach Gastineau Channel. It could be like yesterday when strong winds drove heavy wain into the rain forest. You see such things a lot in September. But this morning, no rain fell. I left behind my rain pants but made sure that Aki wore a rain-safe wrap. She tends to shiver during heavy storms.
We dropped off of Chicken Ridge toward Gastineau Channel through a dense, but dry fog. I wore a facemask but would never come close to another walker during the trip. As she always does during the first part of a walk, Aki stopped often to catalogue other dog smells. This gives me a chance to study leaves fading from summer green to autumn reds or oranges, then pulls me away just after I snap a picture of it.
The little dog and I stumble on a small birthday party being carefully celebrated near the humpback whale sculpture. A handful of senior citizens have formed a circle that leaves six feet between each of them. They all wear high quality rain gear and masks they made at home from scrapes of cloth. The little dog and I keep the whale between ourselves and the party and stumble on a seal fishing the channel. Ravens, gulls, and ducks watch the seal do its thing and then fly away.
Further down the beach, the little dog and I find an eagle. It’s perched on top of a bare tree, watching a Stellar’s jay land in an adjacent tree. The jay stays for a few seconds and is then replaced by a large raven. The new pair of big birds stare at each other and then fly off in opposite directions.
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.