Flocking to isolation — Couple gathers bird stats from the flats

Winging it

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photos courtesy of Sean Ulman. Sean and Sadie Ulman enjoy a sunny day on the Chickaloon Flats last summer. This year will be the second of a two-year project to monitor birds at the migratory stopover.

My wife, Sadie Ulman, is doing her master’s thesis on the value of the Chickaloon Flats as a stopover site for migrating shorebirds. Last summer we spent 11 idyllic weeks at the Pincher Creek Cabin wandering mudflat plots surveying birds. Then we returned to Delaware for six months, where Sadie took degree-credit classes and I worked on my long, ongoing novel, “Seward.”

Both places are accommodating for a writer. Boring or annoying cities like Newark, Del., are a good place to get work done because you’re not missing anything staying inside. Alaska keeps me happy in general. The artistic space of a remote cabin where I spend at least eight hours a day outside listening to and watching birds makes for an ideal desk.

Chickaloon Flats has the water, mountain views and variety of avifauna — things that foster a happy, expansive soul, not to mention good writing. Newark has traffic, commercial and residential lots clogged with apartment and business buildings and the tedium of societal constraints — things that, in my opinion, can choke a soul. It takes me 15 minutes to drive Sadie three miles to class, over Route 95, through five traffic lights. We are the only two people on her site’s 42,000 acres of refuge land.

“It’s more than a fair deal,” I always tell people interested in the peculiar dichotomy of the destinations. We love Alaska. I would have spent six months somewhere worse than Newark, though no place worse comes to mind, if it meant returning for another northern summer. This will be our fourth in a row. It will be the project’s second and final season.

I have been anticipating the autonomy and inspiration of the muddy wilderness ever since we left last August. Being so close to our departure (date and location) has specified my memory.

The Pincher Creek Cabin makes a suitably humble home for a summer.

The pitch of the short-billed dowitchers’ flight call — “diddery doo-doo.” The snipe’s tail feather spinning witchy “woops.” The muddy marsh’s tangy aromas of ocean sewage; the squish under my wader boot, weighted steps. The taste of rice and beans flavored with a ration of Mae Ploy sauce. The way basic foods magically improve when you lack choice and variety. Gourmet Ramen. The value of calories — feeling the energy drawing in as my jaw works over a granola bar. Sleeping deep after a full day, with bizarre, vivid dreams.

Enough reading time to get lost in a good book and think about the story or style even when I’m not reading. The arrival of the swallows swarming overhead like flies. And the flies — ever-present pests that taught me the tolerance and skill to catch bugs between my lips, then spit them out. The productive chores of filling and filtering water, chopping wood, carrying equipment long distances, setting up nets, etc.

More accessible memories propel my eagerness. Questions arise. Will we identify more or less than the 82 different bird species we saw last year? What new species might we see? Will the plots we monitor be used by more or less shorebirds and waterfowl? Will we be able to net and band as many birds this spring as we did last fall — 76? Will the 15-foot tower we built out of driftwood to scope the shoreline still be standing? Will we see a wolf (not just wolf tracks)? Will we see four-wheeler tracks (hopefully not)?

Sadie Ulman works from atop a tower she and Sean made of driftwood last summer.

Shopping and packing draws the fruits of the field ever closer. I like how little I actually need — a library of literature, writing pads, a dictionary, iPod, binoculars, a soccer ball, a few breathable layers, rain gear, one warm fleece, lots of warm socks, sunblock, ball cap, XTRATUFs, bear spray and cell phone and charger (we have service from nearby Anchorage) so I can call in this column. There are some new, exciting items on the 2010 cargo list. A hand-crank radio (sports scores!), a backcountry oven bake set, powdered eggs, watercolor paints kit, a sun shower, a Nikon D70 camera. Of course, we’ll bring more than we need — Gatorade powder, extra gourmet coffee, playing cards, Bananagrams. That goes for food, too. We ran a little low last August. The ill-equipped feeling of occasionally getting up from the table still hungry was the only part of last season that didn’t feel healthy.

In addition to a natural quarantine from human germs, we had all that fresh air and plenty of exercise. But uninterrupted creative expression, as well as birding, is the best medicine. Writing long prose longhand for the first time, I scribbled a solid novel block. Sadie and I made two comedic short films. Alas, our driftwood tower will live on cinematically even if it was hacked down by heaving ice planks. The structure was featured in “Wreck of a Tech II.” The idiotic technician mistakes it for a lifeguard chair and lapses into memories of his first summer job. After barking out a list of barred floatation devices to invisible mischievous kids, he informs the project leader, a woman, “Yes, sir, it is free swim.”

Every time you go out birding you learn something new. For advanced beginner birders like myself, you learn quite a bit every day. There are endless ways to observe these elegant, colorful fliers. You can break down the behavior of an individual or a whole group. How much time does each species spend foraging, preening, traveling, roosting? Which species prefer certain habitats?

Or simply listen if you want to practice recognizing calls and songs. Each night we typically discuss the highlights of our daily list, and after dinner go outside in the twilight to scope and listen for owls, to tack on a species or two to our daily total — typically about 40 different birds per day in May.

Birding on the flats all summer is particularly neat because we bird in our backyard. Any bird we hear or see might visit for several days or only an afternoon. Since we are the flats’ most extensive tenants (besides the numerous breeders — red-necked phalaropes, northern shovelers, arctic terns, mew gulls, etc.) the appearance of an olive-sided flycatcher or orange-crowned warbler feels like a personal visit. The hermit thrush’s hypnotic song is a private serenade.

Hiking full days, every day, is the only way to get in field shape. The one day off we took last year, we ended up taking a walk (going birding), which paid off because we watched a brown bear sow and her two cubs at play, from a safe, half-mile distance. We also saw the same black bear, about once a week, rooting for tubers 150 yards from our cabin porch across our mud-slough moat. We didn’t bother him. He didn’t bother us.

Despite the difficulty of duplicating the bird work workout, we’ve been training in Alaska for a month now. As I skate skied Headquarters Lake I listened for beeping chickadees and practiced my raven call as the glossy bird carved overhead and croaked a cordial greeting.

Hiking over seaweed-slicked stones on Caines Head beach on a foggy day in Seward may have been the best field test. Racing to pass a barnacled rock obstacle that becomes impassable at high tide, we came upon a herring spawn. Like almost every minute at Chickaloon, I had my binoculars around my neck. The birds, only 50 yards from shore, were identifiable with the naked eye. There are different styles of sight birding. Hardly 20/20, I am quick to accept the aid of Austrian-made crystal glass and zoom in even on nearby birds.

A pod of six Steller sea lions and several solo-floating sea otters drifted through gull galleys and rafts of sea ducks. The three of us with optics counted quick — attaching such scientific tasks onto freshly occurring natural marvels is one challenge of field discipline. Trading counts we settled on 280 Harlequin ducks, 240 Barrows goldeneyes and 186 surf scoters. With the milky fog shrouding out the mountains and the bay beyond, the scene set up like a surreal duck planet. Then two fishermen motored into the hotspot the wildlife had identified. This intrusion lifted up a lot of ducks and pushed most out of sight into the clogging fog. On the flats, fishermen won’t bust onto tranquil scenes. We saw one pair of Barrows goldeneyes on a back pond we seldom visited. In order to see scoters, harleys or pinnipeds this summer, we’ll have to rely on lucky dreams or these memories.

This summer column, I think, can best be categorized as a journal. I’ll chronicle entertaining or mentionable things about our daily life in the Bush, and, of course, be sure to not short the bird report. For example, on April 17 in Homer we saw one emperor goose, 300 rock sandpipers and I had my first scoter triple crown — black, surf and white-winged. Birders’ daily lists often use four letter mnemonics, crackable codes that refer to specific species. So, ina Homer we also saw 182 DUNL, 4 RBME, 3 BBPL, 11 CAGO, 13 GRYE, 12 COLO and 8 HOGR. A fine list with three significant IDs. DUNL means dunlin, BBPL is black-bellied plover and GRYE is a greater yellow legs. That means the year’s premier shorebird migrants are arriving on the Kenai Peninsula. And that means it’s time for us to get out to field camp.

I liked that in stormy Homer we birded from the car, a luxury or limitation we won’t have on the flats. The metal doors and big wind prevented us from hearing any shorebird vocalizations. Even though the greater yellowlegs is a target species and a common bird we saw 65 percent of our days last year, I can’t quite remember its call. It’ll be sweet to reunite with its tunes proper, once we’re out in its and our element.

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2 Comments

Filed under birds, outdoors, Winging it

2 responses to “Flocking to isolation — Couple gathers bird stats from the flats

  1. kate guerena

    The scoter triple-crown!? I can’t wait to read more… Have a great field season!

  2. liz tymkiw

    jealous!!!! just think of all the new 4-letter-code jokes! example: where did the common loon go on vacation? COLO-rado! have fun out there!!!!

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