Two minds meet in a parking lot

Haines Ferry Terminal, Haines, Alaska

I had just pulled the van into the ferry queue and stepped outside when they arrived: from the tree-tops of the nearby Pacific Northwest temperate rain forest, two Northwestern Crows (Corvus caurinus) glided and landed on the asphalt beside me. Hopping to a stop and quickly re-arranging their wings, they looked up at me and I looked down at them. In a moment, with our mutual glances, it was obvious that these two were here because of the growing line of cars, vans and campers that were parked, lining up to board the evening ferry to Skagway, Alaska. I decided to watch.

Earlier in the evening, I had glimpsed a pair of Northwestern Crows foraging by the ocean as I was driving along the coast of the Lutak Inlet to the ferry terminal. As the common corvid of the coast in this part of North America, it wasn’t a surprise to see them here. The tide was receding along a rocky beach, and as I passed, the crows appeared from the shoreline below. Their wings beating in the stiff on-shore breeze with the kind of tempo one expects when birds take flight, they both flew up into a sharp parabola. One of the pair had something in its bill—it looked like some sort of mollusc—and slowed down its wing beats, quickly decelerating. Reaching the apex of its flight, it dropped the object from its mouth onto the rocky shore below. Down the birds flew, on I drove.

This kind of behaviour isn’t unusual in the Northwestern Crow. They’re known to be foragers along the edge of the ocean, looking for aquatic organisms that become stranded as the tide ebbs. If it can be found between the exposed rockweed, it can be considered food and these crows find their protein in the fish, molluscs and crustaceans that live along the coast of the Northern Pacific. While they are foragers, and live commensally with humans, I experienced something unexpected along the line of vehicles.

Northwestern Crows

As I watched the crows standing at my feet, they hopped past me and my vehicle towards the van that had pulled up behind mine in the queue. With what I would describe as curiosity, the two crows began to inspect the grill of the camper van. It became clear what they were looking for: insects. Or, more correctly, they were searching out freshly-deceased insects that had stuck to the camper’s metal and chrome. And so the metal grill became the shore: up these birds flew, gleaning the remains. Because of the lack of a good perch, they looked more like oversized Ruby-Crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) feeding in this way, with their wings quickly flapping to give them the purchase they needed to get their food. This was challenging work for the crows. After the “easy” carcases were gone, it became a cooperative effort with each bird taking turns in one of two roles: one flying up to remove the insects and the other, after the insect hit the pavement, eating it up.

In the minutes before the ferry arrived they continued looking for more to eat, moving from car to van down the line of vehicles.

Nature tours

The rush is on: Yukon & Alaska 2008 is a go

Alaska State FlagGot the good news in the past couple of days that the tour I lead to the Yukon and Alaska for Quest Nature Tours is booked up for this coming June. This, of course, means a trip to Whitehorse, Dawson City, Tok and Haines Junction. New for me this year is a ferry ride from Haines, AK to Skagway, AK along the Alaska Marine Highway. It’s often difficult to arrange the tour’s & ferry’s schedule: when I led the trip last year, we had to drive though Whitehorse to get to Skagway (where the photograph on the left was taken). This maritime addition is a great bonus–to get to Haines, we’ll be driving through what is described as some of the best Grizzly (Ursus arctos) country in North America.

Another bonus for this trip is our drive up to the arctic circle–we’re going to be there for the longest day of the year, when the sun just skims the horizon. How freakin’ cool is that?