August 24, 2023
Photographing eagles in Kukak Bay.
The Endeavour was anchored in a tight, well-protected cove on the south side of Aguchik Island inside Kukak Bay on the Alaska Peninsula. It was overcast and getting dark, but just under the clouds we could see small electric blue remnants of the Serpent Tongue Glacier in the crags of the high ridge to the North. A river with no name (at least on any maps I can find) flows into the bay from the west. Aguchik Island itself is steep, rocky, and brushy, with a grove of Sitka Spruce on the far side.
I had our six high school students and their science teacher in the salon. The kids were loud and happy and the windows were fogging up. I’d just brought them back from the island where they had spent the afternoon walking transects and plotting grids. This was the third day of their benchmark study.
Each student had his or her own assignment. One was doing a census of land mammals, another of marine mammals, another of geology, and so on. The young woman who had birds had thought there was a bald eagle nest on the far shore, but she had been stopped by cliffs. I took her around the island in the Zodiac to look. There it was, high up in the cliffs, a huge rough bundle of sticks with two eagles, an adult sitting on the nest and a dark-headed juvenile standing nearby. She took a long look at the eagles with binoculars and got good photographs with our long-lens camera. She wondered out loud why there were eagles on this side of the island and not on the other, and then thought of a couple of theories. Readily available food, most likely.
On our way back around the island to pick up the other five students she saw a movement in the brush. I had missed it. Then something flew like a giant brown moth, silent, and landed on the ledge of the rock face. It was a great horned owl, the first we’d seen. It watched her, she watched it. She got another good photo and added the owl to her growing list.
Of the six kids on the expedition, she was the only one without a science background. She thought she’d be over her head, that she’d be left behind. But she turned out to be a superb observer, somehow knowing where to look, meticulous with her notes. She got good data. Now, she was talking to the science teacher about joining the school’s research track with the others.
That day she became a scientist.
-- Bill Urschel
The great horned owl of Aguchik Island.
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