Snettisham 2014 - 2: Nests

Heading home

Since I didn’t pack or otherwise get ready earlier in the week, my Friday departure to Snettisham didn’t take place until 1:30 after a morning of what seemed like endless chores to prepare. The sunny skies we’d been experiencing for two weeks were holding and the wind had finally diminished until the seas were expected to be no more than two feet (the best possible forecast). In fact we (Cailey and I) had a following sea all the way down, enough to slow us down crossing to Pt. Arden (actually in the trough there), as much or a little worse than we’d had the weekend before with the exception that the seas followed me into the port where they’d turned against us before. I thought that was a good sign that the north wind wasn’t quite as powerful as it had been. I saw one whale fluke near Sentinel Point; otherwise the wildlife was fairly tame.

We arrived at low tide, but it was a high low tide, so we pulled up onto the mud flats in front of the lodge. I didn’t enjoy hauling the two big bags of blankets over the muck, or dragging the kayak back up, but I couldn’t really complain. Cailey was comfortable enough to stay on the beach while I anchored the boat, wading concernedly into the water, but never approaching a swim. At nearly three years old, perhaps she is wizening up. She did dance like a puppy when I came ashore, but Nigel did that too right up until his old age.

As soon as I was settled I hung a ball of hummingbird nesting material supplied by the BBC in the hopes of filming hummingbird nests in Juneau this summer and got down to serious resting. Even with only a four day work week I am relentlessly exhausted by Friday, probably in part because of my extra-curricular historical research. Thus, with very little guilt, I plunked myself on the porch for some serious sitting and reading. Much to my surprise and delight, a hummingbird started hovering around the cotton and mouthing it within 20 minutes, and another did the same a little later. That evening I didn’t see any of them actually fly away with any cotton, but it was fascinating to watch. There were at least four females (and I suspect more) and two males coming to feed at the hanging feeders, both of which still had nectar from the weekend before. Other birds in the area included crows, a robin (possibly the partially leucistic individual I’d seen the year before), and yellowlegs by the water, a Townsend’s warbler singing, and my first sight of a pair of Wilson’s warblers at Snettisham this summer. Later I heard varied thrushes and hermit thrushes too.

At some point I decided to do a little preparatory work for getting the water system installed the next day. I needed to access the attic to find hardware cloth and screen for the mouth of the olive barrel, which required a ladder, so the first thing I did was remove the tarp from the lodge outhouse which was secured to a step ladder. I found the screens, brought tin snips and giant scissors from the shed, and cut two circles of screens in the same pattern as the ripped screen I’d brought down from the olive barrel the weekend before. That done, I ate soup for dinner and collapsed on the couch for more reading, immediately joined by a very tired Cailey. At 7:30 I was so sleepy I even put my book down for a few minutes and slept on the couch. Eventually I gathered sheets for the bed and made my way to Hermit Thrush, making the bed and reading for some time before going to bed for good.

Kayaking in from the Ronquil

Sleepy pup

New screen for the olive barrel

At 4:00 a.m. I awoke to varied thrushes and hermit thrushes singing, then drifted back to sleep until much later in the morning. Cailey joined me a little later and we both slept in. Once I got up and made my way to the lodge, I fed Cailey and went straight up the olive barrel with my new screens, rubber gloves, and hoe. As I trimmed up the screens and secured them between the two sections of the olive barrel’s lid (the tougher hardware cloth on the outside and the screen on the inside), I was really impressed by the simple but ingenious way I’d crafted it so many years before. It’s too hard to explain here, but take my word for it—it was a brilliant solution to screening out debris in my handy olive barrel water catchment.

After the olive barrel was fixed up, I returned to the creek to further dig out its hollow. I used some larger rocks to diver more of the flow away and hoed and hoed until I thought I had a nice even depression. Once the olive barrel was in the creek, large rocks behind it secured it and increased the level of the water and I laid a small log over the top of it to further help it stay in place. The last step was to redivert the rest of the water to that area. On the way down I fully opened the top valve, nervous to feel that no water was flowing through the hose, and relieved when opening the valve at the bottom resulted in a strong flow. I rinsed out all the housings, inserted filters, and patted myself on the back for a job well done.

Well, almost well done. When I went inside to turn on the water faucet for the final test, I was alarmed to see water spurting from the bottom of the cold water handle, which isn’t even hooked up to water. I turned off the valve and pulled it off with some effort, seeing inside tiny bits of white pieces that had evidently broken off some part of the faucet. Not knowing what I was doing, but feeling that it couldn’t hurt, I used my leatherman to fish out all the white pieces and the pushed the lever back down. It seemed to fit and, lo and behold, was apparently water tight. So I did have running potable water after all!

Later I put together the gray water system and spent the rest of the morning tidying the property, sweeping all the porches and boardwalks and raking the paths, which is no small feat. At 12:15 my phone alarm went off, reminding me to check the location of the sun over the mountain at noon. I’ve been exploring satellite internet options and was told that the satellite would be in the direction of the sun at 12:30 p.m. I went back to the porch with an angle square and measured the angle to the top of the mountain where the sun was, which was quite close to the due south line I’d looked up in Juneau. There was ample clearance above the mountain, a clear shot from the front porch.

I went back down the path, cutting the little bush stumps that threatened my tender feet on the new path to the bridge behind Mink, and picking up a beer in the freshet to have with my bread and cheese for lunch. After I ate I took a cup of Russian tea and a lawn chair down the stone path toward the water so I could better observe the movement of the hummingbirds after they left the area. I was lucky enough to see two hummingbirds gathering nesting materials, both of whom obviously flew away with some of it in their mouths. The first one zoomed upriver around the trees (and probably around the point) and out of sight; the other one disappeared into the salmonberries just a few feet away.

After that I decided to stroll down the beach to where we’d stashed the kayak at our previous low tide departure and kayak it back. Barefoot as I had been all day, I meandered down the rocky beach until I realized under the eagle’s nest that I’d brought no paddle. Rather than returning for one, I decided instead to take that opportunity to explore. The eagle’s nest and its adjacent trees are at the top of a cliff which seemed impassable for a dog, which is why I hadn’t scaled it earlier. The downriver side of its point, however, seemed manageable for both of us—steep but with mossy ledges and convenient handholds. Cailey was up in no time. At the top, the eagle tree was easy to find, the ground beneath littered with sticks. I found the remains of one or two eaglets—if they were different birds, they were in close proximity, but it seemed to me there were a lot of bones and that the two piles were in different stages of decay. But I didn’t find duplicates of unique bones, either. There were very large ones, so the bird or birds in question were well grown. The lower pile had a clump of flight feathers, half in wick, and in there I found a beak. Looking up, the eagle nest was less impressive, and seemed to be drooping significantly on one end; I couldn’t tell if it was falling apart or if that was simply the bottom of the nest where they’d started to build it before it was stable.

From the eagle tree I slowly started down the game trail that ran along the edge of the cliff, heading back upriver. Within a few steps I heard loud, frantic cawing and saw a crow flush off a nest, just above eye level and no more than 15 or 20 feet away! She cawed and cawed, and her mate showed up and they both hopped around the trees protesting. Behind this row of trees overlooking the river was a large meadow of blueberry and salmonberry bushes with a few large stumps among them. I slowly worked my way up a fallen log until I could see down into the nest, but it was too cup shaped and I saw nothing inside. Nevertheless, I am nearly positive the crow I startled was sitting on eggs! Much as I wanted to stay, I assured the parents that I meant no harm and pushed my way through the rest of the brushy opening and into the edge of the open forest above.

The first thing I noticed was white egg shell on the moss. The pieces I picked up were quite large—surely they must be an eagle’s egg! The only explanation I could come up with was that I was below an eagle nest, as unlikely as that seemed since I was not far from THE eagle nest. I looked up from several angles and it did, in fact, look like there was a nest up above me. How curious! Of course I know that eagles often build multiple nests in their territory, but that egg….

From there I wandered upriver onto a knoll overlooking the meadow and admired two Wilson’s warblers feeding in an alder, thinking about how I’d return to the area from the direction of the lodge above the cliffs another time if I could. I wandered back toward the eagle tree (now farther up the mountain), and took another look, increasingly convinced it was a nest. I wondered if there was some way I could tell if it was active!? I studied it again with binoculars and this time I saw a pure white hill behind the edge of the branches—a head! Sure enough, she moved just enough that I could see a hint of an eye and a beak. The mother eagle was on eggs, on this nest! They’d apparently moved, perhaps 100-150 feet from the original, possibly because the other nest was collapsing (it did indeed look like it was falling apart when I looked at it later from the beach). The chosen tree was shorter and at an angle from its neighbors and I tried to memorize its surroundings to see if I could find it from the beach later.

Heading back down, I found one more treasure—a small clump of gray fur or feathers below the nest. It had the look of a pellet that had fallen apart. On the way down I stopped to look for the crow nest again and while I did that I heard horrible agonizing crow sounds from the forest above me. I was worried for a moment that Cailey was killing a crow until I saw her standing calmly beside me. I think it must have been a baby crow begging and/or being fed, and I heard other gurgling feeding sounds later, which means that some eggs had already hatched. I always thought the crows there nested in a colony, so I had been surprised I hadn’t come across more crows nesting in the area already.

I carefully made my way back down the cliff and to the lodge. By that time the tide was low, so I watching the hummingbirds for a few minutes and then started my first COASST survey for the summer. This time I headed downriver first, as it’s the least pleasurable part of the walk, then turned and headed up the beach. The cool mud felt delicious on my bare feet, rather traumatized from walking on dry spruce twigs all morning while I raked. I saw a pale robin, possibly my partially leucistic friend from last spring, and smelled a powerful dead fish smell around the grassy point which I failed to find the source of. There were no obvious tracks or anything else of particular interest.

That evening I ate more boxed soup for dinner and continued to read. I did try one more task, but quickly failed. In an effort to brush my teeth and wash my face in my cabin that night, I hooked up the filters to Hermit Thrush and turned on the water. Unfortunately, the water pipe leading inside the cabin had broken and water sprayed inside and out, soaking the floor before I could turn it off. That discourage further efforts for the day and I turned in.

The sun at noon

Eaglet bones

Nest detritus

I promise there is a crow nest in there

The new eagle nest

The meadow between the eagle nests

The next morning I decided to try putting the rest of the water systems together to see what other repairs I should prepare for before my next trip. The results were not good. One of the filters (both the filter housing and the head) on Harbor Seal was cracked and not water tight, so the whole filter will need to be replaced. Both valves connecting the main water line to the cabin systems leaked, as did the valve to Cottonwood and the hose valve at Harbor Seal. All four should be replaced, though only the two at the cabins are really critical. So, in the end, only Mink has a functional water system.

I also carried pillows and blankets to all the cabins to get them set up for any guests that might show up this summer, then cleaned and packed up. Cailey and I headed out around 12:15. Snettisham was pleasant and the seas were mild and smooth in Stephen’s Passage. They got larger once we passed Grave Point—still smooth but too closely spaced for easy passage, so we crashed through them—and got downright nasty choppy at Point Arden. It was with great relief that we put those seas behind us as we entered Gastineau Channel and ran with a following wind home. My early arrival meant for a calm and relaxing Sunday evening before heading back to work the next day.

Looking upriver at low tide