Photos by Robin Song
Earth and Beyond host and producer Robin Song relates her recent birding adventure, a trip to the Kenai Peninsula. Text follows audio.
In 2009 I had the opportunity to attend the Homer Shorebird Festival. I had lived in Ninilchik in 1987 and would go to Deep Creek to watch the eagles that would frequent the mouth of the creek during fish runs. I stopped there on the way to Homer and found things pretty much the same. The creek had changed course a bit, but the eagles were there, flying back and forth along the cliffs, standing along the shoreline of the creek, fighting over fish remains left on the beach of Cook Inlet by the fishermen after they came into the haul-out just south of the mouth of Deep Creek. There is a pond and marsh near the creek and the usual ducks and cranes were also there. Songbirds added their ambience from the nearby forest. It’s a lively place and a birder’s paradise. I wanted to return.
This spring, things fell into place and it looked like I could go once again. I made my plans. Well, plans can take funny turns. When I took my vehicle in for an oil change, the mechanic found a serious problem, which delayed my upcoming trip. The Shorebird Festival took place without me, but I wasn’t too concerned, having been to it once before. I knew the birds would likely still be there when I finally got to Homer, and my focus was the birds, not the festivities. I had the winter tires changed over to the summer tires and picked the car up on May 16th. I had been calling the NOAA weather station for several days to get an accurate forecast. They were predicting a snowstorm for the 17th, but then it would be partly cloudy in Homer on the 18th and sunny on the 19th.
Driving to Anchorage on the night of the 17th was an adventure. Lyra slept on her dog bed beside me while I gripped the steering wheel and drove through two inches of slush from Wasilla to Anchorage at 35 to 40 miles per hour. Not having four wheel drive, the summer tires were not handling the slush very well. I arrived at my friend’s house at 2am.
It was still snowing lightly the next morning as I set off for Homer. Potter Marsh was quiet- just a few gulls and ducks puttered about in the gray morning. Coming around a bend along Turnagain Arm I saw cars pulled over and people looking up at the cliffs. I pulled over and grabbed the camera. I wound down the window and looked up and spotted a Dall ram walking along a shelf on the boulders. In all, four ewes were scattered amongst the cliffs near him. I spent the next half an hour photographing them, until they moved out of camera range.
I stopped at Portage Lake but it was a complete whiteout. The snow was much deeper there and the creeks and ponds were mostly ice with a few open leads. In the open water shorebirds and ducks courted and hunted food. It was a scene of winter and spring intermingled.
I finally drove out of snowfall at Cooper’s Landing. Once I turned west I drove out of winter and definitely into spring once more. Now when I stopped to let Lyra out and to stretch my legs, I heard birdsong and saw mergansers and terns along with ducks in the creeks and ponds.
I stopped at Deep Creek and found a couple dozen eagles circling the cliffs at the mouth of the creek. Friends were waiting for me in Anchor Point, so I couldn’t stay long. When I arrived there, they took me to Anchor River. I hadn’t been there before, and they told me fishermen toss fish remains on the beach for the eagles, like they do by Deep Creek. We happened to get there just after that had happened and several dozen eagles were converged on one area just above the returning tide. It was a chaos of eagles fighting over halibut heads while Northwest crows darted in to grab what they could and gulls wheeled and screamed above the fray. My friend Nona and I soon noticed that the incoming tide was going to cover the fish heads, which were too heavy for the eagles to lift and carry. I asked her to help me throw them farther up onto the beach. We walked towards the eagles, which scattered and flew a little ways down the beach, landing again and watching us, reluctant to leave their meal. We picked up the heavy halibut heads and spines and tossed them up onto dry sand, spreading them out so the eagles didn’t have to congregate in such a tight area. Such large birds need a wide area to maneuver. We worked quickly and when we retreated, the eagles moved back in. The dominant birds claimed the fish first, landing on the heads and tearing into them, the crows and gulls in immediate attendance. I was glad to have helped the birds get their meal before the sea could reclaim it.
The next day Nona, Fred and I met in Homer for a day of birding. While most of the migrating birds had moved on, I was still able to observe the species of shorebirds I had hoped to, and even added a species to my Life List: the Pacific Golden Plover.
I again went to Anchor River that evening, this time arriving after the eagles had finished eating the fish remains and were scattered along the beach, resting. Nona and Fred drove up and parked and I walked over to their car and stood talking with them while we watched a huge cruise ship making its way up the Inlet coming from Homer to Anchorage. Suddenly I saw a plume of white water erupt from the inlet. I whipped my binoculars up and watched. In a little while it happened again-with another close by. Whales! I alerted Fred and Nona, and while they watched for the plumes, I snapped photos. When I zoomed in, I could make out the shape of the backs-there was no mistaking the forms; they were humpback whales. A third plume went up, farther out. This was the first time I had seen Humpbacks in Cook Inlet. The cruise ship was heading straight by them and we thought how the passengers must have been getting a great show.
My last morning, after bidding farewell to my friends, I headed back for Deep Creek. This time I walked south along the beach when I spotted a gathering of eagles there. I had been told some fishermen had thrown fish remains there earlier. As Lyra and I walked along, eagles cruised along the cliff face to our left, while others sat on ledges, watching us go by. The feeding frenzy was over, and eagles sat on boulders on the beach and stood on the sand, while others preened on driftwood snags. On a boulder just offshore a Surfbird dozed while a tiny Western Sandpiper daintily ran on the edges of the rock around it, then flew over to the shoreline to ply the pebbles for food. Far out in the water a flock of Harlequin Ducks floated in the waves and the ever-present gulls cruised back and forth with the snowy volcanoes across the Inlet as a backdrop. I spent a couple of hours photographing the scene and just taking it all in. I don’t know when I’ll have the opportunity to visit that magnificent ecosystem again, so I want to have the images firmly etched in my memory.
That night I watched the setting sun turning the snow pink on the mountains along Turnagain Arm. The tide was out and a lone eagle stood on the gray silt. No Dall sheep were to be seen, this time. It was peaceful as the car turned towards Anchorage and I bid the Kenai farewell in my rearview mirror.
By Robin Song
For The Love of Eagles