Category Archives: Bald Eagle

Summer Friends at Amook Pass

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!

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Summer Friends at Amook Pass

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.

House Animals

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.

Yard Animals

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!

Sea Animals

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.

River Otter

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Bald Eagles: Hunting and Food

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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Bald Eagle: Flight and Vision

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.

    

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Bald Eagle

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is only found in North America. Its range stretches from northern Mexico to Canada and Alaska and covers all the continental United States. Due to a variety of factors, including the use of the pesticide DDT, bald eagles nearly became extinct in the contiguous United States by the 1950s. The 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act prohibited commercial trapping and killing of bald and golden eagles, and more significantly, DDT was banned in 1972 when it was proven the pesticide interfered with the eagle’s calcium metabolism, causing either sterility or unhealthy eggs with brittle shells. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, and the bald eagle was listed as an endangered species. In 1995, when eagle populations in the continental U.S. began to rebound, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list and transferred to the threatened species list. On June 28, 2007, bald eagles were removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.dsc_0005-2

While Alaska’s eagles were never threatened by the use of DDT, Alaska has its own nefarious history with bald eagles. In 1917, commercial salmon fishermen convinced the Alaska Territorial Legislature that eagles killed large numbers of salmon and were competing with the fishermen’s livelihoods. This claim was later shown to be false, but the legislature enacted a bounty system on eagles that paid two dollars to anyone who turned in a pair of eagle legs. This bounty system lasted for thirty-six years and led to the killing of a confirmed 120,195 eagles, plus countless others that were never turned in for a bounty. The bounty system ended in 1953, and when Alaska became a state in 1959, its bald eagles were officially protected under the Federal Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Alaska’s eagle population is now considered healthy, and one-half of the world’s 70,000 bald eagles live in Alaska. Twenty-five-hundred bald eagles reside on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.

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The genus Haliaeetus, the sea eagles (in Latin, hali means salt and aeetus means eagle), includes eight of the sixty species of eagles. The sea eagles live along sea coasts, lakes, and river shores. The species Haliaeetus leucocephalus (leuco means white and cephalus means head) consists of two subspecies. The southern bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus leucocephalus, is found from Baja California and Texas to South Carolina and Florida, south of 40 degrees north latitude. The northern bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus alascanus occurs north of 40 degrees north latitude. Northern bald eagles are larger than their southern cousins

Eagles are well-insulated by their feathers and are good at regulating their body temperature. Unlike many birds, they do not need to migrate to warmer areas each winter, but in many parts of the country they do migrate, sometimes long distances, in response to varying food supplies. Due to its abundant year-round food supply, Kodiak has a non-migratory eagle population. Furthermore, hundreds of eagles from the Alaskan mainland migrate to Kodiak for the winter months. Effluent from canneries and fish processing plants in the town of Kodiak provides a consistent source of food for these birds in the winter months, and hundreds of eagles can be seen in town perched in trees, on cannery rooftops, on the edges of dumpsters, and even on pickup trucks. In Uyak Bay and other remote bays on Kodiak, eagles stay near their nests all winter, feeding on fish and winter-killed deer among other things.

Since the ban on DDT and related pesticides in 1972, bald eagle populations around the country have rebounded to some degree. The bald eagle population in Alaska is healthy and stable and has never been listed as endangered or threatened by the Federal Government. Eagles in Alaska never suffered the scourge of DDT poisoning, and even now in most areas, they live in a relatively contaminant-free environment.dsc_0099-2

The Bald Eagle Protection Act imposes a fine of $10,000 and two years imprisonment for anyone who harms a bald or golden eagle. It is illegal to even have an eagle feather in your possession without a proper permit. Nevertheless, humans are still responsible for many bald eagle deaths. On Kodiak, Refuge biologists have recovered eagles that have starved to death, been killed by airplanes and cars, caught in traps, and oiled by fish slime or fossil fuels. The Exxon Valdez oil spill killed hundreds of eagles in Alaska. In January 2008, fifty eagles swooped down on a dump truck filled with fish guts outside a Kodiak seafood processing plant. Twenty of the eagles were drowned or crushed, and the rest were so slimed they had to be cleaned. Bait left unattended on a fishing boat can cause a frenzy when eagles land and start fighting over their find. If their feathers become oiled by fish slime, they become less-waterproof, and then if the eagle falls into the water, it is more susceptible to hypothermia.kodiak_alaska_microgrid_508

In 2009, the Kodiak Electric Association (KEA) erected three wind turbines on Pillar Mountain near the town of Kodiak and added an additional three turbines in 2012. Many people worried the turbines would be a danger to eagles since turbines elsewhere in the U.S. kill an estimated 573,000 birds a year. KEA funded a study to address the concerns, and researchers determined that eagles went out of their way to avoid crossing the ridge among the turbines. No eagles were killed during the study, and according to avian biologist, Robin Corcoran, she has never received a report of a dead eagle near the turbines.

Eagles do die from electrocution on Kodiak. Many of the power poles near town are fitted with devices designed to protect eagles, but in January 2011, an eagle was electrocuted when she landed on the lowest of three cross bars on a power pole. That particular crossbar did not have a protective device because utility authorities believed there was not enough room for an eagle to land on it. The dead eagle had been banded years earlier by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, so biologists knew she was 25 years old, the second-oldest bald eagle documented in Alaska, and one of the oldest-documented eagles in the country.

While these manmade disasters are tragic, they are uncommon and do not appear to be a threat to Alaska’s bald eagle population. A greater and less-obvious threat is the destruction of eagle-nesting habitat by logging and commercial and residential development. Eagles tend to nest in large, old trees that are not easily or quickly replaced once they are removed.

Once an eagle attains its adult plumage, it is impossible to determine its age unless it has been leg-banded by biologists. For this reason, we have limited data on the life span of bald eagles. Biologists believe 50-70% of all juvenile bald eagles die in their first year, and as many as 90% die before they are fully mature. Eagles in captivity may live 40 to 50 years. The oldest documented eagle resided in Stephentown, New York and lived to be 48-years old. On average, eagles live 15 to 20 years in the wild, and the oldest documented wild eagle was a 32-year-old bird from Maine. Alaska’s oldest eagle was a 28-year-old from the Chilkat Valley.

Eagles are fascinating birds and have been studied a great deal. Later this winter, I will dedicate more posts to eagle biology. Please leave a comment if you have a question or anything you would like to share about eagles.

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Kodiak Birds

Pine Grosbeak
Pine Grosbeak

More than 240 species of birds have been identified in the Kodiak Island Archipelago. Kodiak is not on a major flyway, but many species migrate to Kodiak in either the summer or winter, and many other species are year-round residents. Common species include golden-crowned sparrows, Wilson’s warblers, fox sparrows, black-capped chickadees, hermit thrushes, and winter wrens.

Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush

Due to its mild maritime climate in the winter, wide variety of habitats, and plentiful food supply, the Kodiak Archipelago is a winter home to more species and numbers of birds than anywhere else in Alaska. Over a million sea ducks and other aquatic migratory birds flock to Kodiak in the winter. Sea ducks commonly seen in the archipelago in the fall and winter include harlequins, surf scoters, buffleheads, Barrow’s Goldeneye, oldsquaws, and mergansers.

In the spring, Arctic terns arrive from as far away as Antarctica, and bank swallows return from South America. Horned and tufted puffins fly from their winter home on the deep North Pacific Ocean to the rocky cliffs of the archipelago where they nest.

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

Without question, the bald eagle is Kodiak’s most noticeable bird, and with 600 nesting pairs on the archipelago, biologists believe the nesting real estate is saturated, and many adult eagles here may never mate. In the winter, hundreds of eagles congregate near the town of Kodiak where they feed on cannery effluent and scraps of fish from boats when the fishermen offload their catch. Many of these eagles seen near town in the winter are seasonal migrants from the mainland.

Over the next few weeks, I will cover a few of these bird species in more detail, including bald eagles, tufted and horned puffins, Arctic terns, and oystercatchers.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle

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Spring

Bald Eagle in Flight

According to the calendar it is spring, but in Alaska, we won’t see much evidence of spring for another six weeks. The days are getting longer, and when the sun shines, I can feel some warmth in its rays, but it easily could snow six inches tomorrow, and no one would be surprised if the temperature dropped into the low twenties or even the teens.

After an abnormally warm winter this year, I don’t mind waiting until late May for wildflowers and leaves, but before the first forget-me-not blooms, other signs of spring will be evident. Bald eagle pairs will soar, circle, dive, and even cartwheel during their mating rituals; schools of herring will arrive to lay and fertilize eggs; and baleen whales, seals, and sea lions will follow the tasty herring into the bays. I dream about sitting on our dock on a sunny day, watching whales and other sea mammals chase and feed on herring. Some years the show is spectacular, and other years, the herring run is insignificant, and the whales are absent. The red foxes are also active in the spring, and their haunting mating screams often awaken me. By early June, we should start seeing does and their newborn fawns. By then, the eagle pairs will be tending their nests as their eggs hatch and the chicks depend on them for a nearly constant supply of food.

I am busy this time of year getting the camp ready and the meals cooked for the spike camps for our spring hunting season. I also have a trip planned to visit my family in Kansas in mid-May, so I can watch two of my nephews graduate from high school. Meanwhile, my novel, Murder Over Kodiak, is being re-released by a small publishing company in Anchorage, so I’m preparing for another round of promotion, and that is hard work. The first thing I’m planning to do is to host a “virtual” book-release party on Facebook. I’ll write more about this next week. For now, I’m trying to learn everything I can about hosting a virtual party. It’s overwhelming, and I hope I’m not in over my head! I admit that I have an uncomfortable relationship with social media.DSC_0168

Between my day job, promoting my novel, keeping up with my blog and my mystery newsletter, working on my next novel and my other writing projects, and getting ready for a trip to visit my family, my spring will be busy. No matter how rushed I am, though, if the sun is shining, and the wind is calm, you can find me sitting on our dock, craning my neck to watch eagles circle and soar, and inhaling the sweet, salty scent of the low tide while scanning the beach for foxes eating clams and mussels. I’ll also be glancing hopefully at the ocean for roiling schools of herring, and listening for the powerful exhalations of large fin and humpback whales. Spring is my favorite time of year, and I am never too busy to enjoy it. I’ll let you know what I see.

Fin Whale near Kodiak Island

Tell me about your spring. I want to hear about the beautiful tulips, daffodils and other flowers already blooming in most places, or if you live in New Zealand or anywhere else in the southern hemisphere, how is your autumn?

If you haven’t already done so, sign up for my mystery newsletter. I am working on my next edition. Also, I apologize to anyone who has recently tried to order my novel Murder Over Kodiak. As I mentioned above, it is currently being re-released, and it will be available again soon with a bright, new, shiny cover. I’ll give you a sneak preview next week and tell you about my mixed emotions going from an indie author/publisher to working with a publishing house.

 

Wild Pets

Bald Eagle

The Munsey kids usually had domestic cats, but they also had many wild pets over the years.  Today, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) laws prohibit feeding and taming wild animals, but in the 1960s and 1970s, ADF&G not only allowed people to rescue wild animals, but ADF&G employees, themselves, often rescued animals and brought many of these animals to the Munseys to care for, nurse back to health, and re-release into the wild.

A few of these animals were good pets, but most were not.  Mike remembers a baby bald eagle, rescued after falling out of its nest, being a particularly bad pet.  Whenever anyone left the house, the eagle would chase them, demanding food.  According to family legend, young Bob wore a red coat that the eagle found particularly attractive, so whenever anyone wanted to leave the house, they’d coax Bob to put on his coat and run the opposite direction.  The eagle would chase Bob, and the other family members could escape the house unmolested.

Baby seals abandoned by their mothers were cute but often did not survive, and it is likely there was something wrong with the babies to begin with, and that’s why their mothers abandoned them.  A few of the seals did make it, though, and I’ve seen 8mm footage of Pat in the water in hip boots, coaxing a baby seal to swim.  Pat remembers the mess the seals made when the kids would sneak them up to their rooms.

Two of the favorite pets were birds.  Tom Emerson with Fish and Game gave the Munseys a one-legged magpie that he had taught to say, “Maggie,” her name.  Herbie was a seagull chick the Munseys raised, and he became very attached to the children.  One time, just as Herbie was learning to fly, the Munseys were returning home by boat.  Herbie was so excited he took off and flew toward them, but he hadn’t quite perfected the art of landing, and he crashed into the water beside the skiff.  The kids scooped him into the boat and dried his feathers.

Red foxes are easy to partially tame with food, and at times, the Munseys had as many as eight foxes in the yard at mealtime.  A man in Kodiak gave Park six raccoons, and Park released them at the Amook Pass home.  The raccoons would join the foxes for meals, and sometimes the raccoons and foxes would enter the house, where the Munseys’ Siamese cats curiously watched them.  As hard as it is to believe, these wild and domestic animals peacefully co-existed as long as there was plenty of food.

The Munseys soon realized that releasing the raccoons had not been a good idea.  The raccoons began to breed, and since they are not native to Kodiak Island, ADF&G biologists became alarmed that these invasive predators would climb trees and eat the eggs of endemic birds.  ADF&G hired a young woman to stay with the Munseys and shoot every raccoon she saw.  Unfortunately, the raccoons were most active at night, when it was too dark to hunt, and how could she shoot these animals the kids considered pets?  Eventually, to the relief of wildlife biologists, the raccoons died off and did not become a threat to the resident birds.  I should point out that tempting as it may be, biologists now feel it is a bad idea to feed wild animals.  The animals need to learn how to procure their own food, and human intervention, no matter how well-meaning, interferes with their survival instincts.

Mike, Bob, and their fellow crewmen rescued the eagle pictured at the top of this post when Mike was a college student, and he and Bob spent their summers working as commercial gill-net fishermen at Greenbanks, a fish site near the mouth of Uyak Bay.  They found the eagle floating in the water nearly dead and picked him up and took him to shore.  They threw a tarp over him, and the next morning, he was sitting on the tarp.  He was tired, weak and looked terrible, but he accepted food and slowly gained back his strength.  He devoured the fish the guys tossed to him, but he would back away when they tried to approach too closely.  Finally, after two weeks, he flew away without a backward glance.  Mike took the photo at the top of this post the day before the eagle departed, and a few years later, the photo graced the cover of Alaska magazine.

It was a magical childhood to grow up in the middle of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, surrounded by wild animals and even having a few of them for pets.  I marvel that after all these years living in the wilderness, Mike still smiles when he sees a deer in the yard or a fox on the beach.  He has never lost that childhood thrill of seeing a wild animal in its natural habitat.

 

Bald Eagle Courtship, Mating, and Chicks

Bald Eagle in Flight

The piercing, high-pitched call causes me look up at the sky, where I see two bald eagles flying in circles several hundred feet above my head.  One eagle dives at the other.  They touch talons and then separate and soar higher. A few minutes later, one eagle again dives at the other, and this time their talons lock, causing the birds to spiral downward in a motion much like a cart-wheel.  I hold my breath as they plummet toward earth, but they finally pull away from each other and fly in opposite directions.

I assume I’ve just observed a courting display, and maybe I have, but biologists have a tough time differentiating between the aerial acrobatics of courting and those of aggression, and it is believed that the two behavioral displays may be closely related.  Eagles also display other much-less aggressive forms of courtship, such as perching beside each other on a branch and stroking and pecking at each other’s bills.  They also use their bills to stroke the heads, necks, and breasts of their mates.

Bald eagles sometimes mate for life, but if one member of the pair dies, the surviving member will often find a new mate within a year, and if a pair does not produce offspring after several seasons, they may change mates.

 

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Copulation usually takes place near the nest site, and females lay between one and three eggs in mid-May on Kodiak.  The male and female take turns incubating the eggs, and each mate hunts for its own food.  The incubation period lasts 34 to 36 days, and it takes 12 to 48 hours for a chick to fully emerge from the egg.

During hatching, a chick must undergo several physiological adaptations.  Before it hatches, the chick absorbs oxygen through the shell by way of the mat of membranes under the shell.  During the hatching process, the chick must cut the blood supply to these membrane and trap the blood within its body.  At the same time, it must also inflate its lungs and begin breathing air once it has cracked the shell.  The chick must also absorb the yolk sack into its body and seal off the umbilicus.

Eagle in Nest

A newborn chick is helpless and dependent on its parents.  It cannot regulate its body temperature, so the parents must keep it warm.  Chicks grow rapidly as long as the parents can supply adequate food, and as the chicks develop and grow, the parents spend less time at the nest and more time hunting for food.

By the age of two weeks, most young eagles weigh one to two pounds (500 to 900 grams).  Between 18 to 24 days, chicks gain four ounces (100 to 130 grams) per day, the fastest weight gain of any stage of their development.  They begin feeding themselves by the sixth or seventh week and can stand and walk around the nest when they are eight weeks old.  At sixty days, eaglets are well-feathered and weigh 90% of their adult weight.

Chicks remain in the nest for ten to twelve weeks, and we often see fledglings making their first flights in late August.  Most nests where we live are located near the tops of tall cottonwood trees, and I wonder what it must be like for a young eagle to take that first step out of the nest.  Their first flights are often very clumsy and quite humorous to watch as they learn how to use their huge wings to fly and master landing on a branch.  Juveniles have longer wings and tails than adults, which makes it easier for them to learn how to fly, but it takes a while before they hone their skills, and they make several crash landings before they figure it out.  They often continue to receive food from their parents while they learn to fly and hunt.