Snettisham 2020 - 3: Unusual birds
May 29 - 31

Pacific loons in the port

Photo Album

I'm sitting on the edge of the deck allowing the brooding chickadee some time on the nest before I go back to battling the satellite signal. It's 2:15 and I started this project about noon. It was unexpectedly sunny this morning after a promise of showers, but as soon as I sat down for lunch, a breezed picked up off of Gilbert Bay that foretold the coming rain. The trip south had been fairly pleasant--a little southeasterly chop in the channel, light seas coming out of the Taku, then flat calm into the port--and I was glad I'd come down early enough to miss the front. One whale on the mainland shore adjacent to Grand Island, another in the entrance to the port, loons. As I ate I tried to time the chickadee's visits, which were then very frequent. Six minutes off the nest, nine minutes off the nest. By the time I got all set up at noon, she was spending less time off (three minutes doesn't give me very long to work) and I was hopping down off the ladder as soon as I heard one of them approach. Then she started staying longer. I finally gave up for a time, really wanting to be courteous, and made some cuts for the grease trap system, having brought down the couplings I needed. I was not in a great mood, but got far enough along that I needed glue to secure the pipes. Which required the ladder. That and the fact that the winds were continuing to whip in and the cloud cover was darkening convinced me to go ahead and work on the internet. My computer and the modem are outside right now, so rain is not ideal. I had hit a 29 at one point before breaking for the chickadees and closing my laptop. When I came back, it didn't show that I'd hit anything above a 15, which was frustrating, And nothing seemed to be happening as I shifted it all around, to the chickadees' chagrin. I dialed it back up to 22 degrees, then lowered it a half turn and spun the dish back and forth, then a half turn down, back and forth. Could the cable have gone suddenly bad? Then I popped onto a 16, then wiggled my way to a 19 and a 21, way over to the left of where the old satellite is. With the fine tuning angle adjustment I found the first 29. When I went down a turn and then to the left a little, instead of finding a 29, I hit something over 30 and then BANG--85 or so! I had found my satellite (Joe said anything over 30 is ours). I'd hit 120 at some point, but as I shifted it ever so slightly I could never get it above 115. Sitting here it's at about 120. I tightened and untightened the bolts that let the dish turn, used the fine tuning angle....I would be content with a slower signal at 120, but the system won't let me go forward with it, so I think it has to be stronger. It must be possible, but I gave the very distressed chickadee some time on the nest. I think it's time to start again. All of this I could have done the last time I was here--my success on this trip was due to some very simple and accurate instructions about how to find "the 29" (two other satellites, maybe DTV) and use them to find mine that should have been communicated before.

I hate to even go back to the hour that followed. My shoulder aching from my efforts to make tiny adjustments to the dish, I worked and worked and worked to get the number above the 121/122 I'd left it at. I loosened and tightened the nuts that allow the dish to turn on the pole so it was so tight it took great effort to move or swung freely, I raised and lowered the angle at various numbers, but I could only ever get it back to 115. The dish was pointed quite a bit upriver from where it had been to the point that I thought there could be alders and a spruce bough in the way. So I clipped, then cut alders with a swede saw, and cast a line over a high spruce bough (succeeding on my first try) to pull it down and clip it. Nothing had any effect. I made one more concerted effort to get the number up, but I could not. I decided early on that I would deal with a slightly slower connection--after all, 122 was not so far from 130--but the system would not let me continue and finish the setup. The modem indicated that I could receive data, but could not transmit. All the while, the mother chickadee yelled in my ear, several times perching in the spruce bough just a couple of feet behind me, giving me intimate looks at her tiny body. A couple of times I retreated and let her in the nest, only to go back up on the ladder and in one way or another force her out again. At 3:30 I gave up and returned the area to peace with the cessation of the generator, which I'd left on the whole time so as not to interrupt the modem and have to start from scratch. Cailey had long since disappeared from my intermittent frustration tears, but when I called her and headed down the steps to the beach for a walk, she appeared from under the lodge. The tide was on its way in, but there was still enough of a beach to make it comfortably up to the grassy point. A large flock of juvenile Bonaparte's gulls buzzed me before settling in on the river. The raging wind had died to a steady breeze and brought with it the sweet smells of early summer. I relaxed a bit and began to put the ordeal behind me.

On the way back I picked up the upriver camera card and discovered something odd just downriver of the creek. There was a large bone on the ground I have yet to identify above several clusters of long white feathers. On closer inspection, there were several other bones, including a long, very light one, leg or arm. The only bird that could possibly be that big around here would be an eagle, but the feathers were all white and some of them were subtly asymmetrical and so probably flight feathers. But not brown as an eagle would have, and no gray as a gull. And no small feathers at all. Were these different animals? In the wet cavity nearby that held a couple of the bones and some of the feathers lay a burrow or at least a natural tunnel, maybe a place where someone ate the rest of the bird? All very puzzling, but I kept some feathers and bones for further analysis.

After that I glued the pipes together, having found ABS glue as hoped in the attic. It went fairly well, though I discovered that the glue sets up so quickly that there is virtually no time to adjust the position of the pipe once inserted into the coupling. Once, when I attached two ends at once somewhat off kilter (and so didn't line up to the pipe on either end), I very nearly had to abandon the project. I wound up whacking one end against the floor of the box repeatedly until the other coupling fell off. I don't even think that several of them got fully inserted into their couplings because they got caught on the glue so fast. It is old, after all, and has weathered many winters. When that was done I found my socket set and went through the lengthy process of tightening the eight bolts on the hose clamps. Finally, I left it to try tomorrow and came inside for dinner. My salmon had only been cooking a minute or two when the propane tank went dry, something I'd been anticipating since I started smelling propane on the last trip. I don't even think I changed the tank last summer! So, weary and hungry and tired, but feeling no emotion at all, I went and changed the tank without incident, cooked dinner, fed Cailey, stoked the fire (started before I worked on the plumbing) and put the day behind me. I read for a bit on the couch, then caught up here.

I feel like working on the satellite dish changed my relationship a little with the chickadees, now having made myself a true nuisance. I was very glad that they are as dedicated to the nest as they are and perhaps I am more an irritation than a threat. Before I started work, I saw the male stop by the nest while the female was inside, poke his head in to some murmurs, and fly away again--so I think he fed her. After I was done I heard chickadees from either side of the deck and watched them meet in the salmonberries, one fluttering his wings until he met the other on a branch and it looked like maybe he gave her food (at least they touched beaks); after that, one of them entered the nest. I saw them go in the nest many times, but never saw anything in their beaks and I'm sure they didn't have anything multiple times. So, perhaps they are still sitting on eggs. During my brief time on the porch after lunch I heard the Lincoln's sparrow sing a couple of times as well as the flycatcher, golden-crowned kinglets, and hermit thrushes, plus quiet songs from the Wilson's warblers. It's 7:00 and I'm comfortable and warm. During the darkest times of disappointment, I imagined having an early dinner of jiffy pop popcorn and as much wine as I wanted, but had calmed down by dinner and wound up having a bowl of soup, slice of toast, a small piece of coho, and wine. It never even rained that much, sprinkling a bit on our walk and just a little while ago, but I am glad the horror is done and I can try to forget about it.


I headed to Hermit Thrush around 8:00, so had time to read for a bit, have a cup of tea, and watch a television show before sleep. I awoke in the middle of the night--or, perhaps, early morning, as there was a glimmer of light from outside and the hermit thrushes were singing. It took some time to drift away again, but before I did so I heard, among the hermit thrush songs, a characteristic "wheet" call followed immediately by a silvery, sideways spiraling song. Again it came--wheet, song, wheet, song. Although the songs did not rise in pitch as they usually do, this was without doubt a Swainson's thrush. I've had this experience several times before, thinking that I've heard them in the wee hours of the morning, but the songs are just not quite what I hear in Juneau and I can never be sure in the morning if I was dreaming (because this would certainly be an example of wish fulfilment!). This time I opened my eyes, looked at my watch (4:00 am), certain that I was awake and now quite confident that previous experiences were also reality. Do they pause here on their way upriver? Do Whiting River Swainson's thrushes sing less meteoric songs? The idea that Swainson's thrushes inhabit the valley upriver just makes it all that much more magical. With the cottonwood groves I've seen from the air, it makes sense. Yellowthroats and Swainson's thrushes--just a touch of the Taku.

On the way to the lodge I checked in on the grease trap to make sure it all looked intact and dry, then came inside to hook it all up. However, I found that the now-rigid outlet system did not allow the flexibility required to insert the drain pipe into the trap. I would have to cut an inch or two off. After lining it up and marking the cut, I started cooking a pancake, then fetched the hacksaw, removed the pipe, and cut off the extra length. Once back together, I started running the water to test the system, running outside and checking when it was about half full to make sure it was filling correctly with no leaks. Not sure what would happen if I left the lid off when it was full, I screwed it on and came back later to feel water flowing through the outlet pipe and into the drain area; no leaks, it appeared to be working. I ate my pancake on the deck with a few sips of cafe francais, then decided I was enjoying the morning enough to warrant a cup of jasmine tea as well. It got so exciting outside, though, that I drank very little of it before it cooled! This morning--mostly sunny, to my surprise--the Wilson's warblers were fully singing again (I'm pretty sure I'm hearing two of them) and very active in the bushes. The chickadees came and went, Townsend's warblers and golden-crowned kinglets and hermit thrushes sang in the distance, and even a brown creeper had peeped at me on the walk over. The river was utterly calm. Hummingbirds were buzzing. Among them, one sitting on a dead current stalk and singing. Singing!? What was that hummingbird doing buzzing along in a quiet song!? Rufous hummingbirds don't do that as far as I knew, but Anna's do. I looked at him in binoculars: drab, green back, circle of orange on the throat, pale gray streaks on the breast. No red. An Anna's hummingbird!?!? Too cool. One of my bird apps indicated that there are subadult males, so this must be one of those--without the full throat and head, but still up for singing and, as I soon found out, dive displaying. Rather than ending in the loud "pew pew pew pew pew" of the rufous, these dives ended in a quiet "wheet" when I could hear it at all. He was harassed by other hummingbirds, including at least one rufous male, and sometimes they squabbled together in the air and up to the top of the dive. And over and over again he came back to sing in the berries.

I was feeling better this morning, not upset anymore about the internet, and thinking of all the little gifts I'd been given. While I was writing yesterday during a break from satellite woes, a shrew (or vole?) scampered down the boardwalk nearby; this morning, the Swainson's thrush, now an Anna's hummingbird, typically a winter visitor in Juneau and then only (presumably) accidentally. Eventually he seemed to move on and bird life quieted and I got to work prepping the porch for staining. Since I was going to have the deck protected anyway, I decided to go ahead and put another coat of spar urethane on the cedar siding on the gable portion of the porch; I had always meant to, in part to help darken it to match the other cedar, and this seemed like a good time even though it doesn't appear to get enough sunlight to damage it. Using the step ladder, this went pretty quickly as I listened to the end of a Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me podcast. After that I put a coat on the cedar that wraps the outside porch posts and the front edge of the beam they support, which did need some work, as well as the lodge plaque. My podcast over, I started staining the rest of the front wall again while listening to a Radiolab about how Beethoven's symphonies are all marked as much faster than anyone likes to play them. After about two hours and 45 minutes, it was all done, the brushes cleaned, and everything put away. Oh how nice it was to put the couch back on the porch and have everything tidy again, with no need to move anything anymore. And, other than a few places that don't seem to be taking the stain, it looks quite nice. A beer seemed eminently appropriate, so I slowly made my way to the freshet, clipping some of the bushes back on the way. I drank my Pacifico in the breeze and sunshine while reading a bit, not stopping for lunch until after 2:00. I broke from tradition and had a jiffy pop for lunch! I guess it had been on my mind since yesterday. Sadly, shortly after I started munching, I heard a bang to my right and a thud and found a live but failing hermit thrush on the ground. I put him in box, but found him dead later. What a terrible time of year for songbird deaths. I hoped that he or she didn't yet have a nest to suffer for it. That window has five stickers on it, I don't know what else to do. I cringed when I heard thrush calls nearby a little later. What is his or her mate, wondering where they were?

The tide was low after lunch, much lower than yesterday, so Cailey and I went for a slow walk upriver. A large fishing boat with a deck covered in pots had anchored in the channel across the inlet and discharged an inflatable and a riverboat upriver, and I saw no signs of either of them. The walking was easy on hard sand or silt and I splashed along barefoot in the shallows. When I got back, I sat for a while on one of the benches and just chilled, watching the birds from a different perspective and seeing that the Anna's hummingbird (I named him Annas) was back and singing again. Feeling pretty mellow, I slipped my boots back on and cleaned up the alders I'd cut yesterday, stashing the big ones under the remaining branches in case I want to cut them later. Then I wandered upriver and back, deciding to take another gander at internet, just to have tried it another time. I managed to get the signal to 120 again, but not better. Was there anything else to try, I wondered? I remembered that with my previous setup, the last step was to adjust the polarization (at least, that's what I remember it being called) which one did by rotating the whole dish. I'd tried to ask Kelly about that, but didn't get a clear answer that I remember. He was doing such a poor job of explaining what nuts were what for adjusting that I'd just figured I'd figure out when I got here. But what if that was the final step to get that last 10 points? While I let the distressed mother chickadee back into her nest for a while, I looked up the old Hughesnet documents from the last dish for anything about that element of pointing. I found little other than verification that I seemed to have the right nomenclature. I moved the ladder to the other side of the dish and loosened the bolts while the mother chickadee was evidently already gone, as she came back when I was in the middle of it. Having loosened the four nuts that I thought were the right ones, needing both sides of the wrench I had plus a socket, I let her back in for another ten minutes or so before giving it a try. Which made me feel very foolish. I can't remember what this mechanism looked like on the other dish, but these bolts I loosened...well, they were bolted right through to the dish and obviously wouldn't let me spin it. Oops. The number dropped below 100 from loosening them, then rose back to 115 when I tightened them again. I couldn't see any way to work on the polarization, so figured it must not be necessary. I tried again to get the numbers up and again failed to get beyond 120. I let the mother chickadee back inside and put everything away. I ate a simple dinner outside, then set up the downriver camera and planted the forget-me-nots I'd brought from town around the stairs, near two clumps of irises, and a few randomly in wet places away from the trail where I weedwhack. Back inside I finally got the fire going and curled up on the couch with Cailey to do this. Now, a show? Some reading? Some more solitaire? We'll see.


I slept through the night, the rain of the evening diminishing sooner than expected. When I drug myself reluctantly out of bed (having dreamt of success with the internet), I cleaned up the cabin efficiently and set the upriver camera before heading to the lodge to wash dishes and otherwise clean up the lodge for departure. On the way back from the creek I found all the bones of one wing of the white bird with several of the terminal flight feathers still attached.

It was the worst timing for a low tide--about 3:00--so I could either fight a falling tide in the morning or wait until the boat floated this evening, likely not making it back until 7 or 8. It makes the departure day even worse than it usually is. I was pretty much done at 9:00, the tide comfortably high, and had some oatmeal and decaf coffee on the porch, noting that the chickadees were still in and out of the box (it looked like the male delivered food again) and that Annas was singing again. It was utterly calm on the river, which I hoped bode well for the journey home. There wasn't going to be enough time to dig into a project, but I also didn't want to sit anxiously as the tide dropped trying to relax but knowing that leaving would be stressful. I finally got up to use the outhouse, taking that opportunity to return to the sight of the white bird kill to look for more items. Not finding any, I decided to take a gander at raising the outhouse with a jack but it was more than I was ready to tackle, as I'd have to remove one tarp, cut away another, and probably clip some salmonberries before I'd even be able to start. Instead I just got ready to leave, heading down to the boat shortly after the rain started. The inlet was still dead calm as I kayaked out, but as soon as I got on board, a brisk breeze flew in off Gilbert Bay, which made keeping the boat off the beach as I drug the kayak up a little touchy (because of the falling tide). But we made it and had almost nothing to carry back.

It was pleasantly calm most of the way out of the port. In the middle of the entrance we passed through loose rafts of hundreds of Pacific loons (and at least one common loon). And then at Mist Island the chop hit. I was grateful and optimistic as we turned around Point Styleman and into Stephen's Passage, as the seas, otherwise similar to last time, were not as nerve-wracking and I was comfortable enough to head up the inside of Seal Rocks, which I could not do last time. As I thought they would, they diminished a little after that, so I figured we'd hit a few larger seas again at Grave Point and then have them diminish all the way north. Oh, but I was wrong. By the time I was half way to Grave Point I was wondering if the crabber that had overnighted on the river was wondering why I was out there. They were mottled two and three foot seas, occasionally larger, and required constant attention and an ever-present hand on the steering wheel to prevent us from careering toward shore. Poor Cailey was suffering and I was none too happy. Surely, though, it would diminish past the point? I suggested as much to Cailey, but I was wrong again. Those big, wind-whipped seas followed us all the way past Grand and to Arden. Surely beyond Arden, then...? But no. I'm not sure I've ever seen this, but they actually built up to the largest seas we passed through--easily four feet-- just shy of the channel and I lost my cool, my nerves about shot. And, though the height diminished inside, it was still so bad that I turned and headed as directly as I could to the Douglas shoreline in the hopes of getting some relief. But the seas just turned and followed us over there. There was no escape. We had two footers on our stern past Sheep Creek and, here and there, all the way to the bridge. Two hours and 40 minutes total. Ezra was kind enough to meet me and help me unload and by then I had recovered somewhat. At home I took a hot bath in a much calmer body of water. When I emerged, it was raining heavily and blowing and the forecast had updated to a small craft advisory. I'd had the good fortune to ride that front all the way home. And I left the pilot light on the stove, using up that brand new tank of propane.

Annas, the Anna's hummingbird