After yesterday’s canoe ride under technicolor skies, this walk on the wetlands may disappoint. Flat gray light flattens the scenery. Still, the color-blind little dog is finding plenty of smells to keep her busy.
A white cloud rises out of the pewter-colored river and pulses over the wetlands. It also honks. Snow geese. Over a hundred of the white travelers swirl toward us and then crash into the river. If another dog doesn’t spook them, we may get a decent view of the geese. They are just passing through. Soon, they will continue their flight to their traditional nesting areas along the Bering Sea coast, over 1500 miles to the north. They need their rest.
Other northern migrants manage to get in some sleep today. A small scattering of canvas back and red headed ducks are curled up on the riverbank mud like sleeping sled dogs. A large flock of shorebirds aren’t so lucky. They are being chased from one end of the wetlands to the other by a husky-mix dog.
It rained last night for the first time in at least a week. It will rain again and soon. Good day to visit with the ducks. Aki and I head out to wetlands drained by the Mendenhall River. We pass two bald eagles perched on the superstructure for one of the airport approach lights. After a third eagle flies over them, the roosting pair lean in toward each other, as if to gossip or show each other affection. Heads almost touching, the eagles watch the early morning jet to Anchorage.
To be honest, I here for the blue birds, not eagles or waterfowl. Many Juneauites have seen mountain bluebirds perched on snags above one of the wetlands meadows. The little dog and I leave the main trail to better scan the meadow for little guys. We won’t spot one of the rare songbirds but will make our first yearly sightings of northern shovelers and lesser scaups.
We’ll have ample opportunities to watch green wing teals and American Widgeons patrolling the mud flats for food. At one point two Canada geese will fly over our heads, giving away their position by their persistent honking.
There will be other eagles and a greater yellowlegs shorebird. But the big surprise, sprung on the little dog and I while crossing the most likely part of the meadow for spotting bluebirds, will be a flight of migrating snow geese that rise out of meadow grass and head down the Mendenhall River.
The little dog and I are crossing the meadow where we met a bear on our last visit. The season’s first dusting of snow brightens the surrounding peaks. Six geese, each whiter than the new snow, swing off from Lynn Canal and drift onto the grass. Most of their fellow snow geese passed through here last month on their trip south. These birds should already be with them in the Lower 48 States.
I think about the tiny rufus hummingbird that hovered near our living room window a few days ago, long after the last wild flower went to seed. Elders tell their grandkids that hummingbirds fly south tucked into the feathers of snow geese. I wonder if there is still time for our hummingbird to hitch a ride with these tardy geese.
We have just finished walking the beach that separates the meadow from Lynn Canal. At least I walked. Aki preferred to run out and back, like she did when she was a puppy. There is something about the sand that energizes her. Perhaps it’s the way her paws sink in or the thrill of sending grains fly with every step. At least one raven watched the little dog run.
Aki and I are walking along the north bank of Eagle River. A line of Canada geese cackle and slow walk to the river. We are not making the geese nervous. The little dog isn’t even in their line of sight and I am careful to keep a respectful distance from the birds. Something at the edge of the sand bars is stirring them. Through my telephonic lens I can just make out a mature bald eagle being chased by a Canada goose. The eagle climbs to hunting height and circles over a gathering of geese feeding on emerging grass. Several of this group cackle and fly, only to land a few meters out in the river.
More geese stir when a northern harrier flies over at a low attitude. Its flight path takes it over our head. But even after all this negative attention most of the Canada geese continue to feed along the river. Only when a circus of children, and them on the southern bank of the river, make their noisy way to Boy Scout Beach do the Canadians take to the air.
The kids swing over to a big tidal meadow and trigger another exodus—a big flight of snow geese that had been refueling on the meadow before continuing on to their nesting sites along the Bering Sea. The powerful fliers change from white line to a cloud as they move over Lynn Canal. It’s my first sighting of the legends even though I lived for years in Western Alaska less than 100 miles from their northern nests. Here in the rain forest elders tell children that hummingbirds migrate here burrowed in the feathers of snow geese. For the rest of the walk I will check each blossoming blue berry bush for hitchhikers.