On the Trails: Kingfishers, Dollies, crows can be found on Fish Creek Trail

Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Fish Creek Trail runs from the north side of the bridge on the Eaglecrest Road down to the North Douglas Highway and continues on the south side of the highway bridge to the north entrance of Gastineau Channel.

Belted kingfishers have been known to nest in the dirt banks near the start of the trail. The first part of the trail below the Eaglecrest Road bypasses some canyony reaches that prevent upstream passage of salmon. Above these barriers to fish migration, small local streams often hold populations of resident, lanlocked Dolly Varden. Some of these populations may have been isolated by natural events, but others exist because humans introduced Dollies to places where they did not occur naturally. The landlocked Dollies are tiny things, commonly only a few inches long, far smaller than their sea-run cousins. Because they are so small, resident females produce very few eggs (sometimes as few as 40), averaging only about 1/30th of the fecundity of sea-run females. The residents grow more slowly, mature at younger ages, and have shorter life spans than the sea-run forms, and do not develop the resplendent breeding colors that grace the sea-run forms.

The trail descends fairly gradually through ordinary spruce-hemlock forest with the usual denizens - winter wrens, Townsend's warblers, two kinds of kinglets, varied thrushes, and chestnut-backed chickadees. Not far above the North Douglas Highway, in a cutbank above a bend in the creek, one can find marine shells embedded in the mud. Post-glacial rebound of the land, relieved of the great weight of ice, has raised former marine beaches well above the present intertidal zone.

At the highway, a spur trail wriggles under the highway bridge and along the creek to expansive meadows, but the main trail is found across the bridge and down an old roadway. In spring, watch for flocks of swallows of several species, swooping low over the meadows near the ponds. Check out the ponds for ducks of many species, both dabblers (mallards, teal, wigeon) and divers (goldeneye, mergansers), when the ponds are not covered by ice or surrounded by people. The ponds are used heavily by combat-fishers when salmon (mostly of hatchery origin) are running. Skirt around the ponds, cross a small slough, and go up on a storm-berm that separates Fritz Cove from the ponds. Look for great blue herons in the sloughs and shallows, standing motionless in ambush or stalking slowly along in their quest for fish. The path wanders along the berm, through a summer wildflower garden, to an isolated stand of conifers flanked by a derelict boat.

That conifer grove is used by a colony of nesting northwestern crows, raising their noisy, blue-eyed chicks. Fish Creek enters Gastineau Channel near here, and the estuary, the shores of Fritz Cove, and the "top" end of the channel offer a smorgasbord of tasty morsels for young crows. Dense beds of blue mussels lie out in the intertidal, and a crow can wrest them from their threadlike moorings, carry them aloft, and drop them onto rocks to crack the shells and expose the succulent body of the mussel. Shrimp-like amphipods and small snails abound amid the fronds of rockweed. In certain sandy areas along the channel, the long, slender, little fish known as sand lance often lie buried in the sand. Crows know how to find them and have high success in digging the sand lance out of their hiding places; however, lurking gulls will sometimes steal the fish from the hard-working crows. Ebbing tides may leave carcasses of other fish or birds for crows to pick over, and crows may raid the nests of smaller birds for eggs or small chicks.

Lower Fish Creek and its junction with the channel is a "hotspot" area for birds. Bald eagles often perch in tall spruces nearby and on the channel markers, awaiting an opportunity to pounce on an unwary duck or gull or surfacing fish; they also do a sort of foot-dance over the sand lance beds,which brings the fish to the surface for snacking (a spotting scope is best for seeing this activity). The varied intertidal habitats provide foraging areas for many other birds, including ducks, gulls, shorebirds, ravens and crows; in the open waters of Fritz Cove one can sometimes see flocks of scoters, as well as diving ducks, grebes, mergansers, and marbled murrelets. This area is a very high-use area for many species of birds, because of the diversity of foraging sites.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired ecology professor and a Trail Mix board member.

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