PAT NEAL: The longest day

IT’S DAYLIGHT ON the river on the longest day of the year.

Being on the river early is a good way to watch the creatures of the rainforest engage in the nerve-wracking work of raising their young in a hostile world where everything wants to eat them.

A mother merganser is feeding her tiny hatchlings a diet of baby salmon.

Her timing is perfect.

Her chicks hatched the same day the baby salmon emerged from the gravel where they were spawned last fall by their parents.

It’s just a coincidence, I’m sure.

The fact that these tiny chicks even made it to the river is a miracle.

The mergansers nest in hollow trees. The nest can be over a hundred feet from the ground.

The chicks take their first flight out of the nest without being able to fly.

Watching baby ducks tumbling out of a tree can be disturbing for us sensitive types, but a thick net of salmonberry limbs breaks their fall and they hit the ground running after their mother.

The number of chicks that a hen merganser is able to hatch and feed is a valuable clue to the health of the ecosystem.

It’s estimated that over 150 species of birds, animals and insects, as well as the trees of the rainforest, rely on salmon. This number is multiplied out on the ocean where everything from the seagull to the orca feed on salmon.

These fish are being eliminated throughout the extent of their range by the rapacious appetite of an exploding population of humans.

This is reflected in the number of merganser chicks observed on the river.

The record of baby mergansers in one hatch is 21!

That was a birdwatching triumph from the ’90s that stands to this day.

On this longest day, we saw only one merganser hen with half a dozen chicks.

Even if they are mergansers, saw-billed, fish eating machines, when these worthless fish ducks disappear, the human fishers won’t be far behind.

While extracting specific data about the deteriorating health of the planet and its human population by observing baby ducks on the river, or lack of them, can be problematic, it will have to do until something better comes along.

I think it’s safe to say from the initial phase of the study that people who fish 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 baby ducks is one of the greatest thrills of nature, unless it is an eagle hunting otters.

The eagles are not particular this time of year.

They have young of their own back at the nest squawking from dawn till dark, so eagles 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 calf but that is not the bird watchers’ way.

It’s against the law to mess with fawns or calf elk.

As well it should be.

Leave them alone.

Do what you can to raise your own family before you interfere with theirs.

Mother elk and deer will invariably come back.

Life goes on through the longest day.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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