"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

She's All Mine (with a little help from my friend)

Squeezed between the flanks of two steep mountains is a sliver of water and, though small by Alaskan standards, this water has a name—Jerome Lake.  Its scenic value, however, more than measures up to another Alaskan standard.

Perhaps a couple hundred feet wide and a half-mile long, the water of Jerome Lake is a master of illusion.  Because the mountain on its southern side keeps it in shadow most of the day, the water often looks black, but in actuality it is crystal clear and not very deep, and you can see the bottom.

So clear you can see their feet.

The two-lane Seward highway, the only highway that provides access to the Kenai Peninsula,  is carved into the rock of the mountain on the north side.  Two small pullouts give travelers a chance to stop and enjoy the scenery or drop a line in the water.  One pullout is simply a wide spot in the road.

Approaching Jerome Lake from the north in autumn.  Cars are parked at each of the small pullouts.

The other is a paved pull-through where RVs often stop overnight, permitted by Alaska’s lax (or lacking) laws on such things.   It was this spot I drove into a couple days ago.  Twenty feet or so below me, the ice is slowly melting, leaving a narrow band of free water along one edge.

If I had one word that best describes Jerome Lake, it would be serene.   Even with traffic rushing by, I always find the lake peaceful, like an oasis of calm in a busy world.   With that in mind, what happened when I stopped at the lake the other day marks an incident in nature that I’ll never forget.

A pair of mallards paddled placidly about in the shallow water at the head of the lake.  To my right, behind some still-leafless brush, a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneye ducks floated in that strip of water.  

Then, I saw a flurry of black and white wings as two Goldeneye drakes fought with each other.   Suddenly, the mallard drake zoomed across the water, feet and wings a-blur, right into the middle of the kerfuffle and broke up the fight.

I stood there transfixed.  

The mallard paddled back to his hen.


The vanquished Goldeneye scooted away, looking a bit grumpy.

The victorious Goldeneye rejoined his blue-eyed hen and drifted off to the right.

And I was left on the shore, agape at what I had just witnessed--one species interfering in the mating fights of another.

Or perhaps it all goes back to serene, that one-word description of Jerome Lake,  and that was exactly how the mallard wanted it.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Duck Hunting and Honking' Honkers

Today was not an ideal day to do either of the two things I wanted to do.   Windy with frequent rain showers passing through , with few breaks.  Good day to stay home (for a change) and do a few housework chores.

And that's exactly what I intended to do when I got out of my chair in the living room and headed into the kitchen.   I would strip my bed and then mop the kitchen floor.

Somewhere along the path to the bedroom, it occurred to me that I should make a quick trip out to Tern Lake to see what ducks were there today.   Many of them are transient ducks--on their way farther north--so being at the lake at the right time is important.

Next thing I knew, I was dressed for picking up litter and driving slowly by Tern Lake, trolling for ducks.   The usual suspects were there--the mallards and the goldeneyes and the mergansers, but also some transients, like Zorro the Ring-necked duck:

Such a fine fellow.   He doesn't look quite so angry in profile:

As you can see, the wind was still blowing and it was raining lightly, so I headed 18 miles down the road to check on another good place for ducks.

Guardrails line both sides of the road at Mile 18 marsh, so I cruised by slowly, checking to see if I should stop and sneak up on the ducks.   Duck hunting conditions looked good, except the wind was howling and it was raining.


I drove another few miles to a lily pad pond, but saw only mallards and goldeneyes.

 I headed back to Mile 18, and as I approached, the rain quit, the sun pierced the clouds and a rainbow appeared over the marsh I was headed to.

Now, those are propitious signs in my book, so I parked a quarter-mile from the ducks--a quarter-mile because of those darned guard rails.

As I neared the ducks, I saw two Canada geese.    I've always liked them, such handsome geese.   A bit earlier, I'd see a battalion of them floating on Kenai Lake, all facing into the stiff wind and rain.

Canada geese with Northern Pintails facing into a stiff wind and rain.

These two were the only ones in the marsh.

They're also called Canadian honkers, and honk they did.   They told all the ducks in the marsh that an intruder was coming and all the ducks in the marsh departed for other places.

Northern Pintail drake.

Northern Pintail drake.

Northern Pintail drake.

 Do you think I could get just one of these pintails to look up for a quick photo?    Nope, not even that Northern Shoveler swimming in the opposite direction.  (far right of the flock)

Big-mouthed honkers!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Is Home Here or There?

It has been said that home is where the heart is, but when the subject is migrating waterfowl, how the heck do you know where their hearts are?

I guess the predominant factor is where they raise their young, and if that is the determining criteria, then the headline of this post should be "They're Home!"

I am a member of a Facebook group called Birds of Alaska, where people post photos of birds they've seen in Alaska.   It's much like an online bird-watchers group, and it has been going crazy lately as ducks and geese and songbirds return from their winter vacations to build nests, lay eggs, and raise a new generation that will follow their parent's behavior for years on end.

I carry a camera with me everywhere I go outside my home.   Usually it's s small point and shoot with a 20X zoom.   I used it a few days ago to take photos of a mallard pair at Tern Lake.   They were about 50 feet across a shallow pond and it took every bit of zoom to get these photos.

I watched as the hen moved closer to the dry grasses along the bank.   Had I not seen her go there, I doubt I could have seen her in her perfect camouflage.

This coloration will help protect her from bald and golden eagles as she sits on the nest, slowly incubating a batch of mallardeggs.

The drake, meanwhile, stayed in open water, ready to protect her from me, or perhaps from other mallard drakes.

A day later, I drove a short distance from this area to another lake in a narrow pass through two mountains.   Because this area is in shade most of the day, spring is a bit later.

Two Barrow's Goldeneyes were padding about in a small puddle of open water near the shore.   This time, I had the good camera and the excellent lens.

Note how clear and calm the water is.   Not only can you see the bottom perfectly, you can see the ducks

The showy drake.

And the incredible, blue-eyed hen.

Welcome home, friends.   We are all so happy to see you again.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Escape Hatches for Dumpster Divers

You know the saying, "If all else fails, read the instructions."

Instructions and warnings and such are all over.   Don't eat the toothpaste, dispose of properly, etc, etc, etc.   And my all time favorite that's on EVERYTHING:   "...known by the state of California to cause cancer...."    No other state knows it, just California.

So, this afternoon I drove over towards Cooper Landing to throw some trash in the "solid waste transfer site," otherwise known as "the Dumpsters."

Four doors on the dumpster that swing outward.

These dumpsters were modified a few years ago to have doors that bears can't open (hopefully), hence the label on the doors to keep them closed.   They also keep out the magpies, ravens, and eagles that have a bad habit of flying off with succulent trash and spreading it around the countryside, like avian littering.

Plain and simple.   Stick your hand behind the plate and pull on the lever to open the door.

After I finished emptying my pickup of trash, I went to close the door and saw this stenciled on the inside of the door::

See that green bar ?

I would love to know the story behind this stencil.    I wonder if someone got caught inside when all four doors closed and the borough added an escape hole and instructions?    Yes, I've seen people crawling around in the dumpsters looking for treasures. 

Look closely and you can see the bar through the hole.   You push against that (from the inside) and the door will open.   Unless it's stuck, like many of them are.

In that case, I guess you have to wait for a bear to come by and open it so you can escape.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Something is happening here....

What it is ain't exactly clear....

Tern Lake is thawing rapidly and today I stopped to admire a pair of swans feeding close to shore.

Trumpeter swans are usually quite shy and swim off if approached too closely.   Stay in your vehicle and they don't mind, but is you're on foot, the prefer to depart the area, especially in springtime.

I was on foot as I carefully approached.  I made sure they could see me and didn't walk straight toward them.    As I expected, they left the confines of the icy area and started swimming towards me, which would give them a large area of open water for escape.

They continued towards me.   For a few moments. I thought they were going to charge and chase me off.   They were close enough that I could see how broad those white backs were and I imagined that getting my arms around the body with my hands touching each other would be all I could manage.

At a distance, the swans don't appear that big, but when two of then are swimming right at you, you get a good idea of just how large birds that weigh 24 lbs. and have with ten foot wingspans  are.

To my surprise,  the pair didn't swim off to my right into more open water, but stopped in front of me.

 The huge male, called a cob, waded into a shallow spot next to a clump of grass and stood looking at me while the female, the pen, paddled about and groomed her feathers.

Vehicles stopped nearby on the side of the highway, but the swans remained, barely twenty feet from me.    I moved around a bit to get clear of the willows growing along the shore, but the birds remained.

"Such a pretty bird," I said softly.   "Such a pretty bird."   The cob stopped his preening and watched and listened.

 And then, as if he knew what I'd said....

I wonder if this is the pair that took up residence last summer at Tern Lake and have been hanging around in the open  water at the head of the creek.   If so, they've certainly gotten over their shyness during the winter.

The cob, behind, takes a nap while the pen keeps watch.

As long as I stood there, they remained.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Rules of Thumb

There are two rules of thumb regarding seasons in Alaska:

One, when the fireweed has topped out (bloomed all the way to the top of the stalk), winter is six weeks away, and,

Two, when the birch trees are fully leafed out, it's safe to plant outdoors.   That usually coincides with the last of May.

So, imagine my disbelief when I looked outside yesterday at the rapidly-disappearing patches of snow and saw something so rare, I'd never before seen it in March.

BIRCH BUDS!    And a couple were starting to open.   A first for me.

And the temperature yesterday on the shady side of my house?    A whopping 66 degrees.

While I rejoiced in the warm sunshine and started putting away things winter, a nasty thought intruded.   If it's this warm, it's warm enought to wash the outside windows.

Whew, thank goodness today is overcast and spitting rain.