Thursday, October 22, 2015

Life on the Docks

Winter in coastal Alaska has a bonus not enjoyed by someone living in — say — Delmar, New York (where I finished high school) or Brookfield, Wisconsin (where Karen grew up).  Like grizzled retirees from those same towns chasing the winter sun, waterfowl and shorebirds, fleeing iced-over ponds and marshes in interior portions of the continent, sashay down to our coast.  Here they happily spend the darkest months indulging in fresh seafood delicacies that dwell in our marine waters.  They join larger members of the animal kingdom whose “wings” just aren’t powerful enough to enable them to fly — except through the water.

                            A pair of Common Loons newly arrived after interior lakes began to freeze over

Barely more agile on land than a bowling ball and even less so in the air, this Harbor Seals epitomizes grace when it "flies" through the water.

This is particularly true at the northern end of Wrangell Narrows, the site of the city of Petersburg, where harbor seals and Steller’s sea lions are joined by thousands of gulls, ducks and shorebirds.  Here upwelling seawater nourishes an ecosystem filled with enough species of marine worms (yum) and fish to keep “everyone” happy with the added bonus of tasty ground-up seafood processing waste from our local canneries.  

A Common Loon wrecks the day of a fish -- but can it swallow that big of a victim without a set of wolf-like choppers?

                                                                     No Problem!  Well, maybe just a little.

For the record, one local cannery’s permit required wastes to be discharged in waters somewhere around 30 or 40 feet below sea level.  Wellllllll…..I once joined inspectors diving on that outfall.  While we navigated to the site, the diver made his final preparations.  Oxygen tanks filled— check.  Dry suit on— check.  Regulator functioning — check.  Tank valve open — check.  A couple of test breaths — check.  Weights on — Check.  Get ready, we’re closing in.  STOP!  REVERSE ENGINE!  WATCH OUT!  DON'T HIT THE PIPE!  If he had jumped over the side of the boat at a deep spot he might have gotten his knees wet.

I never saw the final inspection report.  However, I couldn’t help but notice that currents are so fast at the site that the discharge is well diluted.  Instead of looking like a biological wasteland around the outfall — as sterile as Mars but less colorful — the area looked more like a Hawaiian coral reef.  It’s a great place to cast a fishing lure during higher tide levels.

This week Karen took her new Canon Powershot SX50 camera out on the docks to give it another test run.  The first day, as she slowly crept up on several sleeping seal lions, she paused.  “Why do I have this uneasy feeling?”  The dock began rocking and bobbing accompanied by the increasing volume of a gurgling sound.  Suddenly a geyser of water reminiscent of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful erupted as it gushed out of a standing pipe -- the one under which she was hiding.  Karen had been creeping from pipe to pipe using them as photographic blinds — if one can use a standing pipe as camouflage.  Only Karen would take a shower on the docks — without a towel.  Most others seek out more private facilities.

Nevertheless, brave Karen returned the next day, this time using her navigational skills to avoid that “trap.”  She went to a different dock.

                                                 Steller's Sea Lions know the meaning of comfort.

                                           So who's keeping track of whose flippers belong to who?

            Black Turnstones and Surfbirds seem to sense that Karen is a softy when it comes to predatory instincts.

Petersburg's upside down Harbor Seal cruises through the harbors in it's own style.  Don't knock it until you've tried it.

                                                                           It's downright addictive.

A short-billed Dowitcher proved a challenge in deciding if it was the short-billed species or the long-billed version.  Here's hoping we got it right.  The surfbird was an easy call.

This Bonapartes Gull is unlikely to stick around all winter, but will be another harbinger of spring in five or six months.  Just the thought of that makes us think it's on to something.

                                             You know, there's more than one way to fly.  I wonder......




Unknown said...

Great capture and story! I initially noticed your "loon vs flounder" images. So was the bird really able to gulp down that whole thing down okay? I imagine the frantic fish wouldn't agree much with what's going on! Does it stand a slim chance of escaping it's captors stomach if eaten in that condition as well?!



Don and Karen Cornelius Artwork said...

Yes, Kyle, it got the fish down. Pretty amazing. You'd think it would get stuck and do in the bird, but not so.