It was daylight on the river, on what was almost the longest day of the year. It was a day when anything could happen and I did not want to miss a minute. Some call it a fisherman’s hazing ritual, having to get on the water at first light, but that’s summer fishing. The early bird catches the fish. Being on the water early is a good way to watch the creatures of the rainforest engaged in the nerve-wracking work of raising their young in a hostile world where everything wants to eat them.
The mother merganser is feeding her tiny hatchlings on a diet of baby salmon that just popped out of the gravel. The fact that these tiny birds even made it to the river is a miracle. The mergansers nest in tree hollows that can be over a hundred feet from the ground. The baby ducks take their first flight out of the nest without being able to fly. Watching baby ducks tumbling out of a tree can be a disturbing episode for us sensitive types but a thick net of salmon berry breaks their fall and they hit the ground running after their mother. The number of chicks that a hen merganser is able to hatch is a valuable clue to the health of the eco-system. The all-time-near-as-I-can-tell- record of baby mergansers in one hatch stands at 21! That was a bird watching triumph from the ’90’s that stands to this day. It was sweet revenge for all the times I found the pages of my bird identification book glued together and Vaseline on the lenses of my binoculars. Bird watchers play pretty rough. Emotions run so high because well, the stakes are so low.
Whoever dies with the biggest bird list wins. Even if they are mergansers, saw-billed, fish-eating machines that every fisherman hates. When those worthless fish ducks disappear, the fishermen won’t be far behind them. This year the most baby fish ducks I have seen with one mother has been 7. Even more disturbing are the hen mergansers that are flying downriver to the ocean when they should be swimming with their chicks. If their chicks haven’t hatched by now, they are not going to. This would indicate a dismal nesting season with grave but as yet to be determined consequences.
While extracting specific data about the health of the planet by observing baby ducks or the lack of them can be problematic, I think it’s safe to say from the initial phases of this study that humans as a species are doomed. Until then we are content to watch the birds.
Bird watching is almost a blood sport when it is done right. Watching eagles hunt the baby ducks is one of the greatest thrills of nature, unless it is an eagle hunting baby otter. The eagles are not particular this time of year. The eagles have young of their own back at the nest squawking for food from dawn till dark so they are liable to tackle anything.
One day we saw half a dozen eagles circling an elk calf that was curled up in a ball on a gravel bar along the river. The poor thing must have been lost or swept down the river because no elk would leave her baby out in the open like that. All hands wanted to save the baby elk but that is not the birdwatchers way.
The next day there was just a patch of hide and bone with a bunch of eagles standing around posturing as if they were waiting for more. Life goes on.