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On the Trails: Beach watching

Posted: September 27, 2013 - 12:01am
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A plump black bear totes her coho to shore.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
A plump black bear totes her coho to shore.

After a stroll through our rainforest, checking out seed-filled bear scats, vivid scarlet mushrooms and highbush cranberries glowing a brilliant red in a remarkably sunny (in September!) understory, I ventured out onto the sand flats and gravel bars near the mouth of Eagle River.

Little bunches of gulls hung out at the water’s edge. The sand was packed with the tracks of gulls and ravens; here and there the fat toe prints of an eagle pressed down more deeply. On the shrubby bank above the gravel, scattered salmon skeletons left the record of many ursine picnics. Bear trails crisscrossed among the willows, but the fish run seemed to be over. The bears will be back when the coho come in.

A little later I perched above the beach and watched the tide turn. An eagle, perched on an old stump, presided over a gang of about a hundred crows, all head-down, busily poking about in a distant sand bar. The eagle then flew over to a mudflat and grabbed a very dilapidated salmon carcass. After pulling off a few bits, the eagle hobbled over to a sand bar with the fish held in one foot. There it stood proudly over its catch for some minutes, until it lost interest and gave the skanky old thing to a crow, which also lost interest.

A few herring gulls wandered over the mudflats. They investigated every flat, limp, raggedy, long-dead salmon, turning over the black, stringy carcasses, sometimes yanking them around for a few yards. It wasn’t clear if they intended to eat some of these black rags; more likely, they were after invertebrates that probably were feasting on the rotten carcasses.

Just off-shore, a small bunch of seals bobbed around, ever curious. Farther out, some gulls attended another seal that must have nabbed a fish or two — the gulls fluttered in and out every time the seal’s head popped up, presumably in hopes of snapping up any stray bits.

On the way back to the car, I was preceded by a recently emerged mourning cloak butterfly, its richly colored wings in pristine condition. These butterflies commonly feed on decaying organic matter, but this one was probing the dirt along our route. It would spend a minute or so in one area, then flutter on a few feet more and visit another spot. Its proboscis frequently touched the soil, probably sucking up some moisture. I wondered if the decomposition of fish contributed to whatever it was getting — but it didn’t visit the carcasses themselves. These butterflies overwinter as adults, tucked into some crevice; when they awake in spring, they feed at the sap wells made by sapsuckers.

 

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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