Sea lions barks echoed across the water. Wintering sea ducks foraged near the rocky shoreline. Out where the river washed into the bay Western Grebes and cormorants worked the currents. On land, a Fox Sparrow chipped annoyance at an interloper. A group of crows (could they be Northwestern?) searched the tide line for morsels washed in from the marine world. Below the surface a myriad of epics I’d never know about were unfolding; salmon would begin their runs into the funnel of freshwater irrupting through salt in the coming months.
You’d likely not guess that I was standing spitting distance from the second largest port on the West coast of the United States. That I was less than a mile from two superfund sites created by Boeing and other industrial giants. That I was gazing out across Elliot Bay to downtown Seattle.
Now I’d be the last to suggest that this, even with all the wildlife going about their business before me, was a healthy environment. However, the menagerie was somewhat awe inspiring considering. Puget Sound, particularly where the Duwamish River outlets into Elliot Bay (and more appropriately dubbed the Duwamish waterway because it is so altered), isn’t a spectacle of clean water. And yet, here were all these creatures.
I was here for a short sojourn away from the life of an urbanite. As much as I wish to distinguish myself from the city, it is where I am from and where I’ve lived for most of my life. In part I am responsible for the problems lurking in this ecosystem. Yet, that knowledge doesn’t detract from enjoying a world, one I am not intrinsically a member of, unfold in a little parcel of my favorite inland sea.
Subconsciously, I ask more questions than I realize, a slim number of which are answered. For instance, I wondered where the Barrow’s Goldeneyes I observed were going to disperse to for nesting. The males were beginning their masculine shows of head tossing, giving wild chase to each other. Pairbonds were being (re)established here, I knew that. But would pairs fly off to a secluded Cascadian lake together or head further North or East?
At first when I saw the movement, I was alarmed. Was that the bloated corpse of a marine animal, or….something worse? My immediate thought of death when gazing on the industrial wastes of shoreline below wasn’t unreasonable. Instead, I was pleased to discover four harbor seals, relishing an afternoon nap. They even seemed to be smiling in enjoyment of a secluded spot, free of annoyances, to doze. Their biggest issue appeared to be the occasional boat’s wake wafting in and jostling their half-submerged derelict dock. True seals, even when resting, are such excruciatingly awkward sausages on land.
Sleeping seals were pleasant enough to see, but not terribly captivating overall. However, a hilarious slapstick show was unfolding out in the middle of the channel. California sea lions, just like their seal relatives, are far from uncommon, but the bellowing, writhing mass of blubbery animals stole my attention. The object of all the upset was limited space on two floating anchors. Several smaller sea lions were in constant spiral around each float, looking for a entry point, occasionally wiggling into a small crack. This would typically catapult another into the water or annoy someone else enough to howl and bite their neighbor in misplaced anger. In the two hours I was near the floats, this never seemed to stop because the bellyaching groans were constant.
While the mammals seemed to be spending a lot of their time sleeping or jostling to do so, most of the birds appeared to be in constant search for food. On a dock down the shoreline I kept flushing a group of goldeneyes attempting to feed on morsels attached to the pilings. A red-necked grebe was ambitiously trying to swallow a large fish who was determined to not be swallowed. Bird life on the water seemed to be in a pedantic whirl of diving, resurfacing, and swallowing.
A rocky bit of shoreline along Alki often hosts some surfbirds or black turnstones, resting mere feet from the joggers and bikers trolling the coastline. Their sleeping forms blended well with the surf stained rocks, but here were a group of twittering, pretty birds, within arms length and no one seemed to notice. The wind picked up and I shivered a little bit. Watching the shuffling, half asleep birds, I did not envy their daily exposure. A man in shorts biked by, discordantly spouting “the harder they come,” no doubt bound for a cozy retreat.
One of my goals for the coming year and beyond is to get better at using eBird to record my observations, so I attempted to count everything I saw. There’s value in this because I am abysmal at taking notes of scientific worth (unless it’s actually for science of course) and looking back at my notes from traveling or local haunts I’m rather embarrassed by what I choose to scribble. Diligence of this manner might actually inform my wending words, but probably not my daydreaming.
The mind wanders, and again I was watching behavior instead of counting gulls or simply gazing over the distant water and across to the snowy Olympics. Pleased by what I could see in such proximity to a major, industrialized city, I still couldn’t help but imagine this shoreline a hundred and fifty years ago. It would have been free of cement detritus, the summer home of the Duwamish people. Would there have been more birds wheeling about out there? Where would the seals and sea lions have chosen to rest instead? Would someone have been doing what I was doing, looking wistfully out to sea?