Life-and-death struggles: nature's business as usual

Posted: Sunday, April 01, 2007

More than a hundred ravens were swirling, calling and dive-bombing something in the snowy meadow. I crunched forward on my snowshoes until I could see through binoculars what the fuss was about: an eagle, standing on a raven.

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The raven was still alive, moving slightly. Presently the almost-mature eagle took off. Maybe he was fed up with the excited mob of ravens, which then departed also.

The victim rolled over. Apparently unable to fly, it started hopping and rowing through the snow with its wings. It jumped its way into the cover of some alders, where it lay flat and panting.

After several minutes, it seemed to collect itself. Then it hopped on into the trees and disappeared.

I plodded over to the site of the ruckus and found some raven feathers but no blood. Plenty of wing marks, both eagle and raven, marked the snow, as if the struggle had gone on for some time.

I tracked the raven's well spaced wing marks toward the alders and noticed that two other ravens had been standing by in a spruce tree. Maybe they were friends or relatives.

You don't have to trek into the back country to see such dramas. This one took place on Switzer Creek, just north of the Lemon Creek neighborhood. It offers a variety of natural habitats in the midst of human settlement, easily accessible to most folks.

A flock of juncos was bathing at a bend of the creek. For some unknown reason, I often see them in this spot.

A great blue heron, annoyed by my presence, kept moving ahead of me to other parts of the stream. In previous winters, I have usually seen several snipe in the creek, but saw none this winter.

In Marriott Pool, an American dipper was foraging, mostly on aquatic invertebrates. Occasionally it caught a tiny salmon. Plunging off its twig perch, the dipper dove and followed the fish for several feet in an underwater zigzag chase.

Dippers swim underwater using their wings, and the behavior was clearly visible from several points on the trail near the pool. I have seen a dipper catch several salmon fry here in just a few minutes - they are very efficient fishers.

Because I study dippers, I was pleased to find one of my color-banded birds, singing in a culvert (a great echo chamber!). This bird was a male that nested last spring up near Eaglecrest on Douglas Island. If he survives, he will probably be there again for the coming nesting season.

He will also be further evidence of altitudinal migration by our local dippers.

Switzer is a good place for wintering dippers because it is spring-fed and almost never becomes ice-covered.

Besides aquatic invertebrates and small salmon, dippers also catch sculpins and baby starry flounders in the stream.

There are dangers here as well, however. I once watched a goshawk dismember a mallard here, and goshawks are known to prey on dippers.

I watched a raven chase a dipper, which flattened itself out on the water surface and hastily swam under a cutbank.

There are two main entrances to the trail in the meadows of Switzer Creek. One comes down from near Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, across the west branch of the creek, and joins the main trail.

A small parking area serves another entrance near the end of Alaska Avenue. There's a trailhead sign nearby. The access to Marriott Pool is via Central Avenue to Lund Street, then left on Lund to the dead end at the trailhead.

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



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