Regal Eagle at the Deli

Sometimes when I drive by this tree at the side of the estuary, it is loaded with bald eagles, decorating it like so many Christmas tree ornaments.

Today there was only one eagle — an immature one at that. The rest were busy foraging below the tree  and up the river mouth at the Regal Eagle Deli. The last putrefied chum salmon lie like wet paper towels on the banks, exposed by the dropping tide.

Perhaps this one had eaten his fill and couldn’t stomach one more mouthful of rotten fish.

“Oh rats!” he says. “Another bird watcher.”

“I’ll give her my Exorcist pose – body facing one way, head looking the other. That’ll confuse her so she won’t know which is front or back.”



“Now, where was I? Oh yeah … urp … trying to digest that disgusting fermenting fish.”

Regal eagle looks for food, 

Fish again? Not in the mood.

Chilly air, he shivers high

In the tree so he can spy

Rotten fish washed up below.

Better eat in case of snow.

Leaner times around the bend,

Need to eat or life could end.

Though he’d like fish still alive

Choosy eagles don’t survive.

The Estuary

Between  Comox and Courtenay, the road runs along the estuary. I always see at least one interesting thing when I pass by there.  It is a place where many species thrive, and a refuge for them when the weather is extreme. 124

From Comox Bay, boats sometimes (not often) come partway up the river. In old times they might have been going to the ways to be hauled out, or they might be going to the small government wharf in Courtenay. The Town of Comox has the much bigger facility, with easier access from the Strait of Georgia. Markers and pilings in the river mouth help to guide boats along the deeper river channels. Many a boat has run aground here, for lack of better navigation aids.

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Birdlife is everywhere. Here are two kinds of ducks.  I’m ashamed to admit that a long time ago, I thought all ducks were brown and their ducklings were always yellow.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. Duck plumage is as varied as that of other bird species.

Drake mallards are immediately identified by their green heads, but look more closely and you’ll see other markers. Yellow bills, chestnut breast feathers, a hint of a white collar on the neck, beige sides, darker brown on top, dark blue wing speculum outlined by white bars. Flashy little devils, aren’t they? Their wives are dull for camouflaged safety when nesting, but in spite of the boring mottled brown, they do have the same dark blue wing speculum bordered in white. Oh, and notice the bright orange of the feet. Both male and female have these cool boots.

Beyond the mallards a flock of widgeons are milling around. Again, the drakes are the flashy ones with their white head stripe and black and white rump feathers. A slash of white under the wing takes the boredom out of the brown body colour. The hen widgeons, again, are dull, dull, dull. And in this case, neither drakes nor hens have those cool booties like the mallards have. The widgeon boots are a more modest greeny-gray.

I find it interesting that the two kinds of ducks are together here and yet they are keeping to their own groupings by species.

Most likely they are here in the estuary because there is snow on the fields just now. Usually, the widgeons visit grain fields where they are like lawnmowers when a group of them get together, nipping the tops of the grass. A new planting of grain can be devastated by a huge flock of widgeon grazing for a few hours.

The mallards, on the other hand, will forage for other things. They don’t mind eating rotten potatoes left in the field, or kernels of corn left behind. If they are hungry enough, you might see mallards snacking on a rotten salmon on the shore, something that is beneath the dignity of the widgeon.116

But see (below) who has moved in from the frozen fields and the mist of the last blog post. The Canada geese!

And if you look closely, in the distance, you’ll see another visitor, sitting on a branch on the island in the estuary (maybe click to enlarge the photo). He’s watching for anything edible, be it fish or fowl. The bald eagle seems to sit a lot, but his “eagle eye” is watching for any sick or crippled ducks that would be easy pickings. Barring that, there may be a careless fish in the shallows. You never know what might wash up. Just now it is a hard time for eagles. The spawned out salmon  are almost gone and it is a bit early for the herring to show up. But they are always on the lookout for an easy meal.

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The estuary is full of life.You never know what you’ll see but there is always something of interest.

 

Cut Off

Photo Courtesy of Ken Johnston

The commercial fishing season in the Queen Charlotte Islands was over for another year. Gary and I had several days of travel in our fish boat before we would reach our home on Vancouver Island. One afternoon we dropped the hook in the estuary of one of the rivers that flow from the Coast Mountains down to Grenville Channel. Not a soul around, and the scenic beauty called us to go exploring.

Leaving the fish boat anchored in deeper water, we launched the skiff and motored partway up the river beside a huge expanse of tidal flats. Gary looped the skiff’s small anchor about two feet off the ground, around the gnarly wood of an uprooted tree. The estuary was like a meadow except for two things: the grass was long, coarse and yellow, most of it lying down from the rush of the tide over it every six hours or so, and the “meadow” was crisscrossed by ditches  where the tide carved out trenches each time it flooded and ebbed.

The power of nature was awe-inspiring. A herbal aroma, mixed with the salty iodine smell of low tide, wafted over the estuary. I felt small and alone against the backdrop of mountains. We tromped across the tidal flats, high-stepping over the humps and bumps of the grassy knolls and leaping over muddy ditches. I thought about nature shows I’d seen where people surprise grizzlies who are feeding in some low spot out of sight. When I saw a huge footprint in the mud, I wondered how alone we really were.

Photo Courtesy of Ken Johnston

“What if we surprise a grizzly?”

“Naw! They’re all up in the mountains.”

“But that footprint …”

“Just a dip in the mud. Don’t worry about it.”

We walked until we were close to the edge of the trees at the foot of the mountains, commenting on the birds that thrived in this marshy place and noting the evidence of small animals that had fed on shellfish.

After about an hour, Gary said, “Tide’s starting to come in. We’d better go back.”

The sun was sinking lower in the sky. Soon it would drop behind the tops of the hills on the far side of Grenville Channel. We’d had a beautiful afternoon and a chance to stretch our legs after being confined to the fish boat for so long. We looked forward to a good night’s sleep after so much fresh air.

Many small trenches were now filling with water.  We jumped over some and waded through the wider ones. We were still about ten minutes’ walk from our skiff when we came to a wide trench that now held water just deep enough to go over our boots. While we looked for a way around the ditch, and found none, the water continued to pour in and was soon thigh high.

“You stay here, and I’ll go across and bring the skiff up the river to pick you up.”

“No,” I said. “I might as well come with you.” Truth was, I didn’t relish being left behind as grizzly bait. I was still convinced that the footprint I saw was from a bear. “But listen! Hear that?”

“An outboard.”

We waited and sure enough the sound came closer. A man wearing dark green raingear pulled up in his skiff and waved to us. He pointed. “That your skiff down the river there?”

“Yeah. Tide cut us off. I was just going to wade across and bring it up here to pick up my wife.”

“Just wait there,” the man said. “I’ll go back and tow it up here for you.” He spun his boat around and took off.

We stood on the grass at the edge of the rising water and smiled. “How lucky was that?” I said. “But where did he come from? There’s no one else for miles and miles around here.”

We waited as the sound of his motor faded. We waited. And waited. “What if he just went home, wherever that is? Was he really here? Did he really say he was going to get our skiff? Did we dream it? I don’t hear his motor at all.”

The light was fading and the back of my neck was starting to get prickly at the thought of being stuck here. Visions of grizzlies looking for hors d’oevres flashed through my mind. This was traditional grizzly country. But they were all up in the mountains, right?

“Maybe we should go for it while we still can,” I suggested.

“I’ll go,” Gary said. “It’s waist deep now and ice cold. No sense both of us getting hypothermia.”

Again, in the nick of time, we heard the sound of an outboard. The man in green pulled over to the river’s edge and delivered our skiff to us. We were saved. We thanked him profusely, explaining that we do know about tides, but we sure hadn’t expected it to move that fast.
“Oh, it’s bad in here because it’s flat for such a long way. Sorry it took me so long but your skiff’s rope was four feet under water. Took me a while to get it undone.”

“We’re sure lucky you came along,” Gary said. “But where did you come from? There’s no one around here.”

“I have a barge at the old cannery, across the channel,” he said. “Running a little guiding operation.”

“For sport fishing for salmon?” I asked.

“No. For hunting grizzlies.”

Photo Courtesy of Ken Johnston

Cold Duck

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The east coast of Vancouver Island is unique with its many large estuaries that hold thousands of wintering waterfowl. Because of our usually temperate climate, the birds fare well, as they have access to open water and abundant food.

Traditionally these birds would have fed on estuarial native plants and mollusks available at low tide, and in extreme hard times, the carcasses of rotting salmon. With modern agricultural practices, the birds’ preferred food has been the crops grown in the fields near the estuaries: potatoes, silage grass, and corn. With such a smorgasbord why go anywhere else?060a

Winter is a wonderful time to observe these large flocks feeding and preening, as they are in full nuptual plumage.

Normally you would see a duck or two dabbling around in the water, hidden by the trees and shrubs, but with the unusually cold weather that has moved in this year, the pools are more like ice rinks, and ducks don’t like skating. 003

This puddle is no good for splashing in today.

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The ducks in these fields are mostly widgeon. They’re restless, sensing an approaching cold front, and wondering where to settle down for the afternoon.

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As many as a thousand widgeons grazed in a tight formation that soon denuded the grassy patch they were working on. They flew up and circled on my approach. The farmer might have been grateful for my intervention. The grass he planted for silage for his cows is being cropped just a bit too much to allow it to grow well after such a hard clipping by hundreds of duck bills. If the ducks were more spread out, the damage would not be as significant, but they like to sit close together at the dinner table as they munch a swath through the field.

Heavy snow clouds advance relentlessly. I will never understand how such dark gray clouds can hold white fluffy snow.

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It is late afternoon and the widgeons need to think about safety for the night. They are safer on the water, but so much of it is frozen.
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They find some patches of open water where they can dabble for grit and wet their whistles. Yes, the water is a bit salty but it is a river estuary –  fresh water with just enough ocean water to keep it from freezing over completely. There’s safety in numbers and they certainly do have that. They’ll huddle together through the night and tomorrow it’s back to the feeding fields. Let’s hope they aren’t covered with snow.

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Flyway Smorgasbord

In North America, there are three main flyways (the Atlantic Flyway, the Pacific Flyway, and the Central Flyway) and a few minor byways for migratory birds like ducks. Think of these flyways as highways in the sky. Ducks follow the flyways when they head south to escape the harsh northern winters. In February or March they travel back north to breed in the areas where the young birds can  feed on the plentiful insects during extended daylight hours. More feeding time means they can grow more quickly and become strong for the flight south in late September or October when the northern days get shorter and the weather  turns cold.

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But don’t be fooled by the term “flying south for the winter.” Some birds go very far south, but others tough it out without going right down to the warm weather. All along the coast of British Columbia, ducks and swans can get through the winter, mainly because salt water doesn’t freeze – at least not here.

Mainly, ducks need food and open water. Here the ducks and swans feed side by side. The smorgasbord of potatoes left in the fields is just too good and too plentiful to squabble over. There’s enough for everyone.

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Someone must have rung the dinner bell. The smorgasbord has begun.

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When the potatoes are gone, these ducks  might move to a field  that once grew corn or grain. If the fields flood, there will still be dockweed or millet seeds floating on the surface of the water. Ducks are very opportunistic and this is why they are survivors.  Can you see the potatoes these ducks are eating in the photo below? In a light brown circle I’ve marked a widgeon  that is one of a few species of duck that is mixed in with the mallards who are by far the majority here. The odd pintail is also among the feeders, but not shown in this photo.

017abcI’m amazed at the numbers. This is like a rural New York Duck City.

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Sometimes we get a cold snap and the flooded farm fields freeze over or snow covers the ducks’ food source. This is when they head for the open salt water and feed on sea lettuce and mollusks near beaches and all manner of tiny water creatures in river estuaries. At times, the spawned out salmon carcasses still lie rotting on the edges of the tidal areas in the estuaries and this can be another food source for them.

In this poor quality photo, the ducks are sharing the table with seagulls, all tearing at the last bits of rotting salmon carcasses near the shore.

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Just before we think too badly of the ducks for eating that stinking salmon, I should mention that this is only done in desperate times. The preferred food for the ducks is still in the farm fields. This works out well, because then the salmon carcasses remain available for the labrador retriever whose owner allows him to  run unleashed along the shores. Coming back to his owner the lab sings to him to the tune of “Jingle Bells”:

Dashing on the shore,

Where rotting salmon lie,

I roll in them once more,

Before my boss comes by.

O’er the beach we go,

He yells for me to stop,

But I know all he wants to do

Is use me as a mop.

Oh! Stinky lab, stinky lab , stinking all the way,

Then at home I’ll get a bath and that will ruin my day, hey!

Stinky lab, stinky lab , stinking all the way,

Oh what fun it was to roll in rotten fish today.

Fog and Fumes

I had not planned to stop. I was in a hurry to meet my sister and I had an hour and a half’s drive to get there. Already running late because I had to stop for a fuel up, I waffled over what to do when, across the street, I saw the fog rolling in towards the river mouth. I had made the mistake of bringing the camera along in the car. It was only my little point-and-click Fujipix (small and unobtrusive because we were going shopping), but it pleaded with me to stop and take some pictures.

In the estuary, a gazillion seagulls had congregated near the mouth of the river. I finished fueling and drove along, until I got to a convenient pullout just down the road.

I didn’t take time to worry about whether I was shooting into the sun or whether the zoomed-in picture would be in focus. I was in a hurry to get going, but I couldn’t pass up the mist wafting into the estuary.

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The more sensible shot was up towards the river mouth.

040aBut I couldn’t resist shooting into the sun and out towards the bay. Beginning photographers don’t care about those things too much.

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So I have a straight-ahead shot, one to the right, and one to the left. All that was left was a good close-up shot of all those seagulls right in front of me. I zoomed in a bit, but it didn’t seem to be enough. Those birds still looked awfully small. I took a few steps forward towards the edge of the bank and then it hit me.

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Fumes of decay! I rushed back to the car. NOW I remembered why the seagulls were all assembled here, making such a racket. They were squabbling over the carcasses of the spawned out chum salmon that lay everywhere in the shallows of the estuary. It was salmon spawning time; a bounty of food for seagulls, eagles, and many others.