For those of you who read one or both of my previous novels, Big Game and Murder Over Kodiak, you probably remember my protagonist, Dr. Jane Marcus. Jane is only a supporting character in my latest novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, which I hope to publish in a few months. She makes her appearance early in the novel, though. The following excerpt is taken from chapter one, where we find Jane elbow-deep in a rotting whale carcass.
I struggled to maintain my grip on the ten-inch-thick slab of blubber while my colleague stripped it from the fin whale carcass. I cursed myself for the umpteenth time for not thinking quickly enough to get out of this project, but here I was, elbow deep in decaying whale blubber, and yes, the smell was worse than anything you can imagine. I had been offered my position on this necropsy team by marine mammal biologist Leslie Sinclair, and I’m sure she thought I should feel honored to be included on her team, but my scientific enthusiasm tended to wane when I was fighting the urge to vomit. As soon as I got home, I vowed to write a list of excuses for the next time Leslie tried to invite me on a necropsy.
It could have been worse. This whale had been dead for around two weeks, but it was only moderately decomposed. The tongue extended from the mouth of the bloated carcass, but the skin had not started to slough, and it was only slightly sunburned. Unfortunately, the external condition is not a good indicator of the internal condition of a dead whale because whales decompose from the inside out. Due to the large volume of tissue wrapped in insulating blubber, the inside cooks before the outside decays. I learned the necropsy team must be very careful when making the first cut on the fifty-ton carcass because it can explode if all those built-up gasses are expelled at once, and yes, when the gasses do escape, the horrific smell just keeps getting worse. I wore a rubber rain suit, the legs duct taped to my boots and the arms duct taped to my gloves. This covering allowed me to wade into the project without getting biological fluid on my skin. A face shield protected my eyes, nose, and mouth, and I’d pulled back my hair and stuffed it under a rubber cap. A persistent drizzle rounded out the perfect day, but at least I was wearing rain gear.
It made sense for me to be part of this necropsy team since I was one of several biologists trying to discover why more than fifty whales had died near Kodiak Island during the past two years. The affected whales included fin whales, sei whales, humpbacks, and gray whales, all species that had baleen instead of teeth and fed on small fish and zooplankton. These huge animals feed at the bottom of the food chain, making them susceptible to pollutants, toxic algae, and changes in their food concentrations due to a variety of reasons, including warming ocean temperatures. Any one or a combination of these factors could be responsible for the whale deaths, or the cause could be something we hadn’t suspected yet. The team was also considering underwater noise pollution from military sonar and other sources. Since I had been studying toxic algae at the Kodiak Braxton Marine Biology and Fisheries Research Center, Dr. Sinclair asked me to come at the problem from the toxic algae angle. Even though the algae I suspected might be the culprit in the deaths of the whales was a different species from what I had been studying, I was happy to do what I could to shed light on this disturbing problem. It seemed as if dead whales were being sighted nearly every week, but most were floating several miles from shore. This carcass was one of the few that had conveniently washed up on shore where a necropsy could be performed. I wanted to do what I could to help, but I’d try to do my work from my lab in the future.
“Jane, can you hear me?”
“Sorry, Leslie. I was lost in thought.”
“The smell is amazing, isn’t it?”
“Since you’re looking at toxic algae, why don’t you be in charge of taking the stomach and intestinal samples as well as collecting feces, if you can find some.”
While Jane’s role in this novel is not big, it is important, and we all want to find out what happens when she and FBI Agent Nick Morgan reconnect. Next week, I’ll introduce you to some more characters from my novel.
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Last week, I wrote about my next novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, and I promised some excerpts from the book over the next few weeks. This excerpt is a portion of the Prologue. A 17-year-old girl is running an aluminum fishing boat from a Fourth of July party at a cannery on Kodiak Island back to her family’s commercial fishing site. It is getting windy; she is plowing through large waves and begins to have engine problems.
Deanna pushed the throttle forward too fast and plowed into a wave, taking a shower of spray over the bow. The cold salt water smacked her in the face, and she gasped for air. The engine quit again.
“No!” She slammed the clutch into neutral and twisted the key – nothing. She tried again, but no luck. She turned the key several more times in rapid succession. The boat turned sideways in the heavy seas, waves rocking it violently from side to side. Deanna’s heart hammered in her chest.
“Calm down, calm down, calm down! You’ve got this, Deanna Kerr. You are seventeen years old, not a little kid. Think!” She unhinged the hood from the outboard, her hands shaking so badly she could barely hang onto it. She set the hood on the deck and stared at the shiny metal cowling. Panic started to overtake her. She had no idea how to fix this type of engine.
“Think!” She commanded herself. The engine isn’t getting fuel. It must be a fuel filter problem. A wave poured over the side of the boat, filling it with several inches of water. She fumbled for the bailer and started scooping water out of the boat, but then another wave hit and more water poured over the side. She had to get the engine started and get out of the trough of the waves; the boat would fill with water if she sat here very long. She realized for the first time that her father had forgotten to give her a handheld VHF radio to carry in the skiff. She should have remembered to ask for one. If she had a radio, she could call for help.
Another wave crashed over the side of the skiff, and Deanna reached for the bulb on the gas line and pumped furiously. She turned the key. The engine coughed and died. “Please God, make it work!” She tried again but no luck. A wave struck her broadside and nearly knocked her out of the boat. She fell on her knees in the water in the bottom of the skiff. She looked for water in the fuel filter, but she didn’t see any. Maybe the filter was plugged by something. She opened the tool box secured to the inside of the hull. Her hands shook as she grabbed the filter wrench and fought to loosen the filter from the fuel line. Maybe she could bypass the filter. She tried to think. What would her dad do? She wasn’t sure how to bypass the filter. She pulled out the old filter and looked at it, but it looked fine. She had no time to think; she grabbed another filter and secured the housing. As she stood, another wave hit her and knocked her back into the bottom of the skiff. She chanced a glance at the angry ocean. Conditions were worsening at an alarming rate. Around her, whitecaps piled one on top another, but even more ominous was the black ocean toward the north, toward her home.
Deanna pumped the bulb on the fuel line again. She said a quick prayer and turned the key. Nothing. She heard herself sob before she even realized she was crying. She didn’t know what else to do. There were oars in the skiff, but she would never be able to row against these waves. She would just have to hope the storm blew her back to shore before the skiff filled with water or capsized. She took several deep breaths and thought about home. When she got back to the fish site, her mother would make her change out of her wet clothes while she made Deanna a cup of hot chocolate. Then, mom would wrap her in a quilt and stroke her head until she fell asleep. Of course, Dad would never let her take the skiff out alone again, but right now, Deanna didn’t care about that. She would be happy never to get on another boat in her life.
Over the roaring wind and pounding waves, Deanna thought she heard an engine. She stood, but her legs were trembling so badly she sat again, and then she saw it, approaching from the north. She rubbed her eyes, hoping she wasn’t hallucinating, but no, it was real, and it was coming straight for her. She was sure the driver of the other boat could see her, even with the swell and high waves, but just to be certain, she stood, waved her arms, and yelled at the top of her voice. She wiped her eyes and nose. Now that it looked as if she was going to be rescued, she didn’t want anyone to know she had been frightened and crying.
The other boat pulled alongside. “Are you okay?” The captain called.
“Thank God! What are you doing here?”
“I’ll toss you a line. Tie a bridle at the bow.”
“Okay. I can do that.” Deanna stood, but her legs were shaking so much she had to brace herself against the gunnel and pull herself to the bow of the boat. The skipper of the other boat tossed her a line, but with her trembling fingers, she couldn’t hang onto it. His next toss was harder than the first, and the heavy line slapped her in the face. She grabbed the line and pulled it into the boat. She knew how to tie a bridle because her father had taught her. Her hands shook as she threaded the line through a hole on the port side of the skiff, across the bow, and through a hole on the starboard side of the skiff. She nearly dropped the line as she brought it back to the center of the boat, but she paused, took a deep breath, and focused on the line and what she was doing. The rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back in the hole. She pulled the line tight. She had it, a perfect bowline.
The skipper nodded and pushed the throttle forward. Deanna’s boat swung into line behind the other boat. She slumped onto the forward seat, shut her eyes, and allowed herself to dream about a cup of hot chocolate and her mother’s embrace.
Deanna only thought she was being rescued, and the situation was about to get much worse for her. Next week, I will reintroduce you to Jane Marcus, the protagonist in my first two novels. Please share any comments good or bad you have on my excerpts.
The working title for my next novel is The Fisherman’s Daughter. Like my other two novels, it is a murder mystery. A friend suggested that a more descriptive title would be Who Murdered the Fisherman’s Daughter? What do you think? The cover of the book will picture a teenage girl in an aluminum fishing boat looking terrified as huge wave crests over the bow of her skiff. I think the cover image by itself will suggest the young girl is in peril. Is the title “Who Murdered the Fisherman’s Daughter?” necessary to let potential readers know this book is a murder mystery, or would the cover be enough to signal this is a suspense/mystery novel? Please let me know your opinion. I haven’t had much luck getting folks to leave comments on my blog posts, so if you’d rather e-mail me, you can send an e-mail to email@example.com. I would be grateful to hear what you think!
This novel, like my previous novel, Murder Over Kodiak, is set on Kodiak Island, Alaska. It begins on the Fourth of July weekend, but most of the action happens during November and December when the crazy Kodiak weather bounces from rain and wind to ice to snow and back to rain again. I like to say there is no such thing as good weather in the winter on Kodiak. It is either clear and very cold, or it’s stormy and warm, and I’ve used our wild winter weather as a backdrop for this novel.
The story I tell in this book is about a serial killer preying on women and girls on the island. A serial killer on an island of only 14,000 people should be easy to apprehend, but this killer is smart and resourceful and doesn’t leave evidence at the scenes. One woman’s body is tossed in the ocean, washing away any trace evidence. A girl’s body is found in a heavy rain storm, any forensic evidence destroyed by the downpour. Another woman’s body is found in a park during a heavy snowstorm, the tracks leading to the body dump covered by the falling snow. Another body is tossed into a public garbage dumpster, contaminated with fingerprints and debris. What about the fisherman’s daughter? By the time she is found, she has been reduced to skeletal remains.
My first two novels were told by Jane, the protagonist in those stories. Jane will also be in this novel, but she is not the main character, and in this novel, I have several viewpoint characters. Sergeant Dan Patterson with the Alaska State Troopers and FBI Special Agent Nick Morgan are the two main characters in the book, but Kodiak Police Detective Maureen Horner also plays an important role. A few of the scenes are told from the viewpoint of a victim, and toward the end of the book, we get a look inside the killer’s head. I have read that writing a story from multiple viewpoints is not easy, but I’ve enjoyed many books told from the viewpoints of two or more characters, and it seemed to me as if it would be easier to tell a story through the eyes of multiple characters instead of through the eyes of just one character. I now know writing multiple viewpoints is not easy, or at least it was not easy tackling my first multiple-viewpoint story. I will be curious to hear how my editor thinks I handled the challenge, and I know there will be some rewrites.
Over the next few weeks, I will post some excerpts from my novel. Don’t hesitate to let me know what you think or to ask me questions. I would love your input!
A couple of weeks ago, I offered a free coupon for an e-book of Murder Over Kodiak, and not many people took me up on the offer. If you are interested in a coupon, drop me an e-mail. The offer will be ending soon. To take advantage of the offer, you will be asked to register for a website run by my publisher. There is no catch; sign up and get your free novel!
Speaking of free, if you haven’t already signed up for my free Mystery Newsletter, now is the time to do it. This month’s newsletter is about a bizarre missing person’s story and a tragic mix-up by the Alaska State Troopers.
One of the main reasons Kodiak bears grow so much larger than inland grizzly bears is due to the abundance of food on Kodiak. Not only can bears feast on protein-rich salmon in the summer, but the archipelago is loaded with nutritious vegetation and sugar-packed berries. A brown bear’s jaws have powerful muscles and teeth that have evolved to adapt to an omnivorous diet of both plants and animals. Kodiak bears are opportunistic feeders. They eat roots, berries, grasses, sedges, wildflowers, wild celery, and other plants, as well as rodents, insects, large mammals (including deer and mountain goats), fish, carrion, and yes, unfortunately, garbage and pet food.
Bears’ stomachs contract during hibernation, and when they first leave their dens, they aren’t hungry. They eat little at first, concentrating on emerging plants and their roots. As the spring progresses, Kodiak bears can be seen feeding in grassy meadows and look much like grazing cattle. Their diet switches to salmon in the summer months, when they chase and catch fish in shallow streams or on the tidal flats near the heads of the deep, narrow bays on Kodiak. Bears also consume dead salmon that have washed up on shore. When the salmonberries, elderberries, crowberries, blueberries and other berries begin to ripen on Kodiak in late July and August, most bears spend at least part of their day in berry thickets, pulling the berries from the bushes with their lips and mouths. Salmon provide bears with fat and protein, and berries are high in natural sugars, all of which are important for building up a fat reserve for hibernation. As fall progresses, bears increase their consumption of salmon and berries as they strive to build up their fat layer before entering the den for hibernation. A diet rich in berries has its downside, though. Bears are one of the few wild animals susceptible to tooth decay. Abscessed teeth are not uncommon, and rotten teeth may affect the bear’s ability to eat and may even lead to starvation.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of bear viewing is watching a bear chase and catch a salmon. Sows teach their cubs how to fish and will often corral a salmon toward the cub in shallow water and then encourage the cub to chase the fish. A sow with newborn cubs that are still nursing will only allow her cubs to eat a small part of her catch after she has had her fill because she needs the extra protein to produce the milk to nurse her cubs, and the cubs are receiving most of their nutrition from her. As the cubs age, they nurse less, and the sow shares more of her catch with them. Finally, when they are old enough, she encourages them to fish on their own, and by the time the cubs are two years old, they can usually chase and catch a few salmon without the help of their mother.
Fishing is a skill bears learn with much practice over time, so young bears are often clumsy fishermen. A sub-adult bear may gallop back and forth in a stream for thirty minutes without successfully landing a salmon, while an older bear walks slowly downstream and pounces on a passing salmon with little effort. A bear may also develop his own unique fishing technique. One bear may sit on a fallen log hanging low over a stream and attempt to grab fish as they swim past. A second bear may “submarine” by dunking his head under water to watch for fish, and a third may obtain his fish by chasing another bear and stealing that bear’s catch.
ike and I just returned home after six weeks on the road. We had a great vacation, but as always, I am happy to be home, despite the cold weather and frozen waterline.
Spring is still two months away in this area of the world, and we’ve had a tough winter here. After several mild winters, the black-tailed deer population on the island had exploded, but many deer did not survive the freezing temperatures this winter. I haven’t had a chance to go hiking yet to see with my own eyes how bad the winter kill was, but I’ve heard it was bad. The cycling of deer populations is normal, of course, and the deer population here will recover, but I find it difficult to watch animals starve to death and die from exposure.
I was thrilled to get a dose of sunshine and heat on our vacation. We went sailing with friends in the British Virgin Islands, and then Mike and I traveled further south to Bonaire where we snorkeled and dived and enjoyed wearing fewer layers of clothes than normal. Besides spending time with friends, the best part of the vacation for me was that I could snorkel nearly every day. I studied marine and fisheries biology in college, and I have always been fascinated by the underwater world. I could float above a coral reef all day long, watching the interactions between the fish and marine invertebrates in that busy community. The area surrounding Bonaire is a protected marine park, so the coral is healthy, and the tropical fish thrive. I would grab my mask and fins, jump off the dock at our hotel, and instantly be immersed in a gorgeous, underwater world. Getting to Bonaire was not easy, but it was well worth the hassle to enjoy that little piece of paradise.
During the many, long plane rides and mornings on the sailboat on our trip, I had time to edit the manuscript of my latest novel. With each pass, I am polishing it into the story I want it to be. I think most authors would tell you editing is the least fun part of the writing process, but editing is necessary and can’t be avoided. In addition to questioning every comma and semicolon and trying to remember whether a character’s eyes are blue or brown, I worry that the plot moves forward in a logical progression. Will the reader be surprised or disappointed? Are the characters believable? Have I provided enough description or too much description? My working manuscript is long, so I’m concerned I need to cut some scenes. Luckily, I will get help answering these questions. Once I have the manuscript as perfect as I can make it, I will send it to a professional editor who will look at it line by line and then step back and consider the manuscript as a whole. A few friends have also volunteered to read the manuscript, and my publisher will read through it and give me his thoughts.
I also want to ask for your help with my manuscript. In a few weeks, I will post a few excerpts from the book, and I encourage you to let me know what you think, good or bad. I would much rather have the feedback now than read it in a review on Amazon once the book has been published!
Finally, I have a gift for my blog readers. Click on the cover of my book below and receive a free coupon for an e-book of my novel, Murder Over Kodiak. When you click on the link you will be taken to a site provided by my publisher, and you will need to register to download the book, but there is no catch. The book is yours free!
As many of you know, I write a monthly newsletter about crime and mysteries in Alaska. I think of spring as the start of the new season for my newsletter, and I have several interesting topics I plan to cover over the next months. My newsletters are free, and you can always unsubscribe if they aren’t for you. If you think you would be interested in my newsletters, you can sign up here.
A Kodiak bear’s coat may range from dark brown to nearly blonde. Bears are typically darker in the fall when they begin growing their winter coat, and older bears are often darker than younger bears, but these are just generalizations. One cub from a litter may be light, while his brother is dark brown.
Cubs often have a natal collar, a white band around the neck and shoulder. Some cubs have no natal collar, and others have a collar that is bright and distinct. This band gradually fades over time, and it has usually disappeared by the age of three, but occasionally, you will see a four-or-five-year-old bear that still has remnants of a collar.
A bear’s fur is an excellent insulator. It is dense and oily, keeping the bear warm and preventing water from penetrating. The fur consists of two types of hair, the “guard hair” and the “under-fur.” Bears shed both the guard hair and underfur annually. In the summer, Kodiak bears often appear shaggy and matted. The bear in the photo below looks as if she is sporting dreadlocks. To help remove their fur, bears rub against trees and rocks, often standing on their hind legs, backing up to a tree and rubbing up and down. It is humorous to watch a bear “scratch his back” in this manner. While the old coat is shedding, a new coat is growing, and by September on Kodiak, most bears appear darker in color and well-groomed. The old, loose fur is gone, and only the new fur remains.
Brown bears have non-retractable claws up to four-inches long. The claws of young bears are typically dark brown and then lighten with age. Although some young bears have light-colored claws, beautiful, pearly-white claws are usually seen on an old sow or boar. Look at the photos and notice the difference in claw coloration between the sub-adult bear and the old sow.
Brown bears use their claws to defend themselves and fight with other bears, but Kodiak bears primarily use their claws to dig for roots and other food and gripping food. Even though their claws look large and clumsy to us, they are quite dexterous and capable of manipulating small objects. Kodiak cubs use their claws to climb trees, but adult brown bears are poor climbers due to their body weight and the structure of their claws. It is not uncommon to see a sow send her small cubs up a tree if she senses danger, and they stay in the tree until she vocalizes the signal that it is safe for them to come down.
Bears, like all animals, depend on their senses to survive. They use their senses for many things, but especially to find food and detect possible threats. A bear’s sense of smell is its most important sense. A brown bear’s sense of smell is three to four times more sensitive than that of an average dog, and it is difficult for humans with our relatively poor sense of smell to comprehend what this means and how much a bear depends on this sense. A bear uses his nose to find food, locate a mate, and avoid danger. A bear downwind from you may smell your presence and run from you while you are still several hundred yards away from him.
A bear’s second most important sense is hearing. Brown bears have relatively small ears, but they can detect noises at a great distance. A bear can hear the click of a camera shutter over the sound of the wind, crashing waves, or a swiftly running river.
For a long time, biologists believed bears had poor eyesight, but scientific research has shown a bear’s eyesight is similar to that of a human’s. Bears are not nearsighted as was once believed, and they can see colors. Brown bears often stand on their hind legs to increase their sight distance and get a better look at an object. It is not a sign of aggression when a bear stands on its hind legs; the bear is just trying to gain more sensory input.
The important thing to remember is a bear does not use each one of these senses independent of the others. If a bear sees something unfamiliar in the distance, such as a person, a boat, or even another bear, he may stand on his hind legs to get a better look, raise his nose to attempt to smell the interloper, and pick up his ears to try to ascertain unfamiliar sounds. If he still cannot determine what the object is, he may approach it for a closer look or circle downwind from the object so that he can smell it better.
Next week, I’ll write about a bear’s fur and claws. Does a bear’s fur change with age? Why are some Kodiak bears blonde and others a chocolate-colored? What is the white ring some cubs have around their neck? How do the claws change with age?
If you haven’t signed up yet for my free monthly newsletter, don’t wait. You won’t want to miss this month’s newsletter about crime and justice during the Alaska Gold Rush written by Alaska historian and author Steven Levi.
Summer Friends at Amook Pass is a post by my friend, Marcia Messier. I love this humorous story about her animal encounters while she worked for us at Munsey’s Bear Camp. What Marcia doesn’t tell you in this piece is that I named our goat visitor Marcie because the goat’s daring trip each summer from the mountains to the ocean, reminded me of Marcia’s adventurous spirit. Prepare to smile as you read about Marcia’s adventures!
During the summer months at Amook Pass, the animals were my friends. That sounds a bit corny, but they were amusing, startling, and comforting, all that friends should be. I looked forward and anticipated who might stop by for a visit during my busy days.
I was privileged to know Gizzy, Fletcher, Elsie, and Olive during my summers at Munsey’s Bear Camp. They were my very best animal friends. I thought it was interesting that Gizzy and Olive had similar personalities as did Fletcher and Elsie; even though, they had never met. Gizzy and Olive were the sweet ladies, soft-spoken, polite, accommodating for a photo, well groomed, and perhaps just a little bit shy of visitors. Fletcher and Elsie, on the other hand, were true wilderness cats. Fletcher was getting along in years when I first met him, but he told me many a hair-raising tale about his hunting skills as a younger gentleman. Elsie was in her prime, and she loved to stalk bears for days on end. Many a time as Robin and I were mourning her early demise, we would hear Mike yell, “Elsie’s back!”, and there she would be, dragging herself through the door, ragged, dirty and ravenously hungry after her latest adventure.
Fletcher and Elsie loved to hunt voles, the tiny mouse-like creatures close to the bottom of the Kodiak food chain. They must be a very tasty snack because twice daily I’d find their tiny blue and green left-over parts deposited on the front door step. I used to tell myself they were loving gifts, but then again, whoever left the pieces always seemed slightly amused when I reached down to pluck the bits off the doorstep while making slight gagging sounds.
Freddie the Weasel became a daily late-afternoon house guest. Maybe the sound of the old generator starting up interrupted his afternoon nap. He’d shoot in the backdoor, zip through the kitchen and take cover under the couch in the living room to watch and learn about life in the big house. At first, I jumped and shrieked thinking he must be some kind of Kodiak rat, but later in the day, Robin calmly explained about weasels.
Gizzy and Fletcher were still with us then but getting along in years. They knew their limitations, so they decided to pretend Freddie was just a figment of my over-active imagination. Not wanting to insult them, I went along with the game and soon we all looked forward to Freddie’s daily antics. I knew when he heard the boat motoring up to the mooring; I would see the tail end of Freddie flip out the front door.
Early in the summer season, the female Sitka deer would bring their fawns into the yard to nibble the bright green salad-like greens growing around the cabins. Sometimes there would be twins, and I would think happy thoughts as I watched them through the kitchen window while preparing breakfast.
One day I came nose to nose with a deer! I was hurrying to the cabin with a load of fresh laundry, and we met coming around the corner at the same instant. We were both startled and just stared dumbfounded into each other’s eyes for a moment. I’m not sure who moved first, but a hunter later told me I was lucky it hadn’t given me a good kick in the shins before it bolted off! I guess that happens, but ours was a peaceful meeting, and I will forever remember that instant.
I live in Arizona, so the first time I saw a fox on the pathway, I excitedly reported to Mike I had seen a coyote in the yard that day. Laughing, he looked at me like I was nuts and said, “There are no coyotes on Kodiak Island!”. I felt a little foolish but still maintain at a distance, a big healthy Kodiak fox looks very much like a thin Arizona coyote in the summertime!
I’ve seen Bald Eagles before, but in Arizona, they are a special sighting. On Kodiak, they are commonplace, and I was thrilled to see a nesting pair close to camp. On my mid-day break, if the weather was good, I’d sit in a lawn chair facing the bay and watch the eagles fish. It was entertaining; an eagle would fly over the water and scope out a fish, and then in an amazing feet-first dive, catch the fish in its talons. After this, it was usually impossible to get airborne once again, so it had to row itself and the fish, still clutched in its talons, ashore with its wings. There, after expending so much energy, it would devour the fish and do it all over again.
More than once, on a nice day, while taking a siesta in the hammock, enjoying the warm sun on my face, I’d hear and feel the strong wing beats of a very large bird flying close over me, and I’d know I had been checked out by a Bald Eagle!
Some of you may have read my “Encounter” with a bear. I was walking along the path up to the guest cottage one afternoon, my mind far away, when I heard a “horse” snort. The sound brought me back to the present in a flash, and I must say, I have never confused the sound of a bear with that of a horse again!
A secret I’d like to reveal is Mike used to make a bear playground out of old red mooring buoys a distance up behind the generator shed. I heard him and Robin laughing once about how much fun the bears had rolling, tossing and chewing these old red buoys. I never did venture up past the generator shed and burn barrel. Wearing a red jacket, I didn’t want the bears to make a mistake. I did wonder if mother bears warned their cubs, “never go near that playground as there is a dangerous human there who makes frightening loud, smoky blasts come out of the shed and soon after makes fire leap high into the sky out of a barrel!” Thinking back, I was probably quite safe.
Marcie was my favorite yard animal. One warm July day, we spotted a solitary mountain goat strolling along the beach near camp. Mike and Robin reported this was indeed a rare sighting. We couldn’t help ourselves, Robin christened her Marcie, and we began to speculate about her life and why she was here on our beach. She was a rebel. Marcie was tired of billies, she had too many youngsters to raise, and the constant stress of all those steep icy mountain ledges was wearing her down. Maybe she had arthritis in her knees. Maybe she just wanted a vacation at the beach! We happily welcomed her, and for a number of years, she would appear for her annual July vacation at Munsey’s Bear Camp. One year she didn’t arrive. We looked and looked, but no Marcie. Right away we decided, instead of feeling sad, we would celebrate her life. We had a toast to Marcie, how brave she was to break away from the herd and dare to be different!
The sea otter is a zen-like sight floating on its back, paws pressed together as if in meditation pose. It’s a sweet maternal picture with mom floating on her back and a tiny baby resting on her belly. And how clever of them to use tools! They often are observed with a rock balanced on their belly, happily cracking open clams for lunch. Brilliant!
At Munsey’s Bear Camp, I often saw sea otters floating in the cove in front of the lodge, and the sea otters kept to themselves. Their cousins the river otters, however, were a different matter. A family of river otters took up residence under the dock. This dock was now their home, and no one else was welcome. The dock became their dining room and their toilet. A mop had to be stationed on the dock so that the horrid stinky mess could be swabbed away. The mop could also be used as a defensive tool.
With guests arriving and departing from the dock every five days, caution had to be observed. One day stands out in my mind. It was a beautiful, sunny Kodiak day, and we were all on deck welcoming new guests. As they were embarking from the float plane and luggage was being handed down, I took a step back and slid on an unseen mound of otter poo. I wanted to vaporize as I fell on my backside in an ungraceful plop! Afterward, we laughed about this incident, but I never forgot, and every time I saw a sweet little otter posing for pictures, I saw two little horns poking up through the top of its head.
I grew up near Cape Cod where everyone loved to fish. I didn’t. To me, the whole process from baiting the hook, to dragging the poor thing out of its natural habitat with a hook in its mouth, to butchering it, to stinking up the house with fried fish was cruel and disgusting. Fast forward 40 years and I’m a cook in a fishing camp. I politely listened and smiled at all the fish stories and quietly cooked the fish, wondering what all the commotion was about. One day my perception changed. Robin and Mike asked me if I’d like to go out on the boat with them for the day. We had only one guest, and it was a great day to get out of the house. Yes, I wanted to go! Like a good sport, I purchased my fishing license, and away we went. Mike anchored in a pretty cove, and as I sat down in the deck chair ready to enjoy the sunshine, Robin stuck a baited pole in my hands and showed me where to drop the line. Still not paying much attention, suddenly the pole was nearly yanked out of my hands, and the line was whizzing off the reel. “What’s going on?”, I hollered. Robin and Mike replied, “You’ve caught a fish.” They proceeded to give me instructions. Suddenly, the scenario was hilarious, like an old re-run of “I Love Lucy.” I couldn’t stop laughing which in turn made my arms weak and unable to reel in the line. In a second, Robin strapped a belt-like thing around me to support the fishing pole so that I could reel. Now we are all laughing hard, but with perseverance and aching arms, the fish finally emerged from the deep. I was leaned over the rail gasping in amazement at “my halibut” when all of sudden, Mike, with an expert jerk of his pliers, freed my fish from the hook and off it swam! Hey! At that moment I was totally conflicted. On the one hand, I proudly wanted to bring my halibut home for supper, but on the other, I wished it well and was happy it was able to live another day in Uyak Bay.
An eagle can rise on thermals and gain altitude until it is only a speck in the sky, and then it soars until it sees prey and can swoop down and make a kill. When an eagle spots a fish from the air, it begins to glide toward the water. As it nears its prey, it extends its legs and opens its talons. It soars just over the surface of the water and then plunges its legs into the water. The talons strike the fish, and the eagle immediately closes the talons, driving them deep into its prey. The eagle then flaps its wings to pull the fish out of the water and maintain enough speed to remain airborne. If the eagle cannot lift the fish, the bird may be dragged under water and forced to swim for shore. Eagles are strong swimmers, but if the water is cold, they may be overcome by hypothermia and drown.
It is a common misconception that once an eagle grasps its prey with its talons, it cannot let go. While eagles can lock their talons, it is a voluntary action. An eagle can release a fish that is too heavy for it to lift, but sometimes it holds on anyway, perhaps deciding the prize is worth the swim to shore.
Biologists estimate an eagle can only lift a maximum of four to five pounds, but since lift is dependent on both wing size and air speed, the faster the eagle flies, the greater its lift potential. An eagle that lands to grab a fish and then takes off again can manage less of a load than one that swoops down at a high rate of speed and plucks its prey from the water. Speed and momentum allow the eagle to carry more weight.
An adult bald eagle needs between 0.5 lbs (.23 kg.) and 1.5 lbs (.68 kg) of food per day. A study done in Washington State found an eagle needs to consume between 6% and 11% of its body weight per day. If an eagle eats a three-pound (1.4 kg) fish one day, though, it does not need to eat again for a few days. Bald eagles living in coastal Alaska feed mainly on fish such as herring, flounder, pollock, and salmon. They may also prey upon seabirds, small mammals, sea urchins, clams, crabs, and carrion.
In the summer and fall on Kodiak Island, eagles congregate along salmon streams or near the ocean where salmon are likely to school. Large numbers of eagles also gather near fish canneries where they feed on the fishy discharge from the processing plants. Both mature and immature eagles feed on carrion, but research indicates young eagles are more dependent on carrion, and they eat carrion while they develop and hone their hunting skills. Adults, on the other hand, more actively hunt live prey, particularly fish.
The bill and neck muscles of a bald eagle are adapted to allow the bird to gorge itself quickly. An eagle can eat a 1 lb. (.45 kg) fish in only four minutes, and it can hold onto a fish with one talon while it grips its perch with the other talon and tears apart the fish with its bill.
Eagles are the masters of their domain and consider any animal they can lift as a suitable meal. If an eagle flies over a seagull rookery, all the birds on the rookery take flight to chase away the menacing predator. Between fish, birds, voles, weasels, and hares, eagles on Kodiak Island have plenty to eat.
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If you look up on a windy day on Kodiak Island, you will likely see several eagles soaring high in the sky. Bald eagles are built for flight, particularly for soaring and gliding. An eagle expends a great deal of energy flapping its large wings, so to conserve energy when gaining and maintaining altitude, it utilizes thermal convection currents or “thermals,” which are columns of warm air generated by terrain such as mountain slopes. It has been estimated a bald eagle can reach flying speeds of 35-43 mph (56-70 kph) when gliding and flapping and 30 mph (48 kph) while carrying a fish. While not known as particularly fast fliers, eagles can soar and glide for hours at a time.
The construction of an eagle’s wings and tail make soaring and gliding possible. The wings are long and broad and are covered by a layer of lightweight feathers arranged to streamline the wing. The primary feathers, or primaries, provide lift and control an eagle’s flight during turning, diving, and braking. An eagle can tilt and rotate individual feathers to maneuver and brake. The tail also assists in braking and stabilizes the eagle when it dives toward prey. While soaring, tail feathers spread wide to maximize surface area and increase the effect of updrafts and thermals.
When an eagle finds an air current or a thermal, it can gain altitude without flapping its wings. If it is dead calm with no air currents moving up or down, eagles cannot soar, and that is why you see more eagles soaring on windy days or sunny afternoons and sitting on their perches on calm, cool mornings.
When a young eagle first leaves the nest, its wing and tail feathers are longer than those of an adult. As an eagle matures, its wing and tail feathers become shorter and narrower with each successive molt. The larger wings of a juvenile make it easier for the bird to catch an updraft or weak thermal and to fly slower and in tighter circles than an adult. The downside of the larger wings and tail is the juvenile rises slower, sinks faster, and cannot soar as far as the adult. Adult bald eagles can flap their wings faster and fly at a greater speed than immature eagles, making them more efficient at chasing down live prey.
Female bald eagles are larger than males, and while their wings are also slightly larger, the larger wing size does not make up for the increased weight of the female. Therefore, females require more wind or stronger thermals than males to be able to gain altitude and soar. Since thermals are weaker during the morning and evening hours, females are more likely to remain on their perches during these times and soar when it’s windy or in the afternoon when thermals are stronger.
An eagle’s large wings make landings and takeoffs tricky, and landing on a perch is something eagles manage to do gracefully only after much practice. A newly-fledged juvenile looks very awkward when it tries to land on a perch and may even crash land or swing upside down if it grabs the perch while it still has too much forward momentum.
An eagle’s acute vision allows it to see prey while soaring high in the air. The eyes of an eagle are larger than those of an adult human, and an eagle’s eyesight is at least four times sharper than that of a human with perfect vision. An eagle flying at an altitude of several hundred feet can spot a fish under water. The eyes are protected by a nictating membrane, and each eye has two fovae or centers of focus, letting the bird see both forward and to the side at the same time. Eagles have binocular vision, so they can perceive depth, allowing them to judge how far away their prey is when they begin a dive.
Next week, I’ll write about what bald eagles eat and how they hunt. Once again, I want to remind you to sign up for my free monthly Mystery Newsletter and read about true crime in Alaska.