Winging It: Patience nets results as bird migrations progress

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Week 5. Days blend despite our efforts to diversify our looping schedule. We switch off waking early and sleeping in, nap before night sessions.

Weather shifts and eventful bird sightings have become useful ways to tell time. For instance, the big winds ended more than a week ago. This is the sixth straight day of sun. We saw six whimbrels five days ago. Three nights have passed between two earthquakes.

Having two study plots provides a built-in scenery swap. We rarely visit both in a day. Lately the clocks reads, “We haven’t been on plot one in three days.”

The shorebird numbers seem low this spring, but the birds that are here, like us, prefer plot two, so that’s where we go.

To access plot two, we immediately cross two slough trenches, walking or ferrying across on a pack raft, depending on the tide. This mud cake, cracked and powdered with salt, has baked and hardened, so it’s pleasurable walking, akin to the give of a rubber runners’ track. While gauging the day’s growth of glasswort and goose tongue starburst buds, I track coyote tracks and compare gull and crane trident prints. So far we’ve found 17 mew gull nests and one northern pintail clutch of seven eggs in a down-lined bowl. I found the first nest but I should report the score is: Grad student (my wife, Sadie) 16, technician (me) 1.

Pairs of matched ducks and courting dowitchers flush out of pond compartments separated by spike rush as we approach one of plot two’s two large, permanent ponds. Plot one has none and all but a couple of its ephemeral pools have drained.

The reedy grunts of pectoral sandpipers have been replaced by the similar gruff calls of red-necked phalaropes. The former have moved on to their arctic breeding grounds, while the phalaropes are settling in here, courting around like rubber duckies and preparing to nest. This development, as well as the drop-off in all other shorebird numbers, indicate the spring migration has come and gone. Among the array of bathing ducks and gulls on a pond, we’ve counted as many as 82 red-necked phalaropes.

All three of our drop nets are set up here. I am new to hunting, as well as scientific fieldwork, but trapping appears to have more in common with the former. Sound strategy can serve as insurance for poor luck. After observing birds foraging and betting where we think they will forage in the near future (areas that will remain wet), we erect a net. Tensioned to four metal fence posts, the 5-by-11-meter rectangle stretches 1 meter off and parallel to the ground. We run an anchor line 50 yards back, set it in a cleat and wait. And watch.

I prefer hunting from a stand or blind to stalking because I can concentrate on silently listening and almost blend into the terrain. Wildlife carries on as if I’m not there.

Foraging arctic terns splash in nearby puddles. A savannah sparrow flits by and perches so close that I don’t need binoculars to see its yellow lores. Dowitchers fly in and out of ditches, pitching calls that sound like “Star Wars” lasers.

When any bird wanders near the net — or, “we have a customer” — adrenaline begins to drip. So you can imagine the thrill we experienced about a week ago when, first arriving at our net, we saw a pair of Pacific golden plovers sitting pretty at the front, right post. This species is this season’s only life bird for both of us. Dreaming about having such a dapper, black-and-white shorebird with a gold-dappled cape in hand, we forgot to take a photo. Not in my hand, I might add. When releasing the one bird I practiced holding — a 27-gram least sandpiper — I flinched.

Our patience, while dug in minding the net, has paid off with three rapturous raptor viewings. A northern goshawk, banking sharply to clamp to a stump. On an overcast day that resembled late evening this time of year we watched a short-eared owl hunt and perch to dine at 3 p.m. A peregrine falcon worked the same area. For close to five minutes we watched it flap laps before finally arrowing down to display the cruising speed for which it is notorious, flushing all the birds within a mile radius.

From the trapping site we also sighted 60 lapland longspurs undulating above fresh foliage, twice as large as the biggest shorebird time step we’ve seen.

Last Tuesday the Kenai Wildlife Refuge delivered a re-supply. The key item was the water filter. We no longer have to boil water, a time-consuming, sweat-inducing task that wasted wood. And the treated taste is no treat. This is no hand-pump purifier. We pour water into a bucket, leave the cabin for a day or go to sleep and presto! We basically have a Culligan Man in the cabin. It’s incredible. Conversing with a refuge pilot was a welcome departure from our repetitious routine.

My favorite birds of late are the wood birds we hear from the cabin’s yard almost daily, yet rarely see — varied thrush, yellow-rumped warbler, ruby-crowned kinglet and rusty blackbird. Their alluring aura far exceeds their aural charms and animates my imagination. I picture them switching perches or twitching farther into the forest.

We added two more “invisible” birds this week. The olive-sided flycatcher vocalized our last visit to plot two. Let me count on my muddy fingers — that was Thursday, which puts the hermit thrush arrival on Friday, May 21. That was the last 2009 species from which we were waiting to hear.

That swell spell seems cast out of a cave and piped through stalactite chimes by three birds, rather than one. I indulge to support a neat point — nature saved the best birdsong for last.

Sean Ulman received his MFA degree in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. He and his wife, biologist Sadie Ulman, are conducting a two-year bird survey on the Chickaloon Flats.

Week 5. Days blend despite our efforts to diversify our looping schedule. We switch off waking early and sleeping in, nap before night sessions.

Weather shifts and eventful bird sightings have become useful ways to tell time. For instance, the big winds ended more than a week ago. This is the sixth straight day of sun. We saw six whimbrels five days ago. Three nights have passed between two earthquakes.

Having two study plots provides a built-in scenery swap. We rarely visit both in a day. Luckily, lately the clocks reads, “We haven’t been on plot one in three days.”

The shorebird numbers seem low this spring, but the birds that are here, like us, prefer plot two, so that’s where we go.

To access plot two, we immediately cross two slough trenches, walking or ferrying across on a pack raft, depending on the tide. This mud cake, cracked and powdered with salt, has baked and hardened, so it’s pleasurable walking, akin to the give of a rubber runners’ track. While gauging the day’s growth of glasswort and goose tongue starburst buds, I track coyote tracks and compare gull and crane trident prints. So far we’ve found 17 mew gull nests and one northern pintail clutch of seven eggs in a down-lined bowl. I found the first nest but I should report the score is: Grad student (my wife, Sadie) 16, technician (me) 1.

Pairs of matched ducks and courting dowitchers flush out of pond compartments separated by spike rush as we approach one of plot two’s two large, permanent ponds. Plot one has none and all but a couple of its ephemeral pools have drained.

The reedy grunts of pectoral sandpipers have been replaced by the similar gruff calls of red-necked phalaropes. The former have moved on to their arctic breeding grounds, while the phalaropes are settling in here, courting around like rubber duckies and preparing to nest. This development, as well as the drop-off in all other shorebird numbers, indicate the spring migration has come and gone. Among the array of bathing ducks and gulls on a pond, we’ve counted as many as 82 red-necked phalaropes.

All three of our drop nets are set up here. I am new to hunting, as well as scientific fieldwork, but trapping appears to have more in common with the former. Sound strategy can serve as insurance for poor luck. After observing birds foraging and betting where we think they will forage in the near future (areas that will remain wet), we erect a net. Tensioned to four metal fence posts, the 5-by-11-meter rectangle stretches 1 meter off and parallel to the ground. We run an anchor line 50 yards back, set it in a cleat and wait. And watch.

I prefer hunting from a stand or blind to stalking because I can concentrate on silently listening and almost blend into the terrain. Wildlife carries on as if I’m not there.

Foraging arctic terns splash in nearby puddles. A savannah sparrow flits by and perches so close that I don’t need binoculars to see its yellow lores. Dowitchers fly in and out of ditches, pitching calls that sound like “Star Wars” lasers.

When any bird wanders near the net — or, “we have a customer” — adrenaline begins to drip. So you can imagine the thrill we experienced about a week ago when, first arriving at our net, we saw a pair of Pacific golden plovers sitting pretty at the front, right post. This species is this season’s only life bird for both of us. Dreaming about having such a dapper, black-and-white shorebird with a gold-dappled cape in hand, we forgot to take a photo. Not in my hand, I might add. When releasing the one bird I practiced holding — a 27-gram least sandpiper — I flinched.

Our patience, while dug in minding the net, has paid off with three rapturous raptor viewings. A northern goshawk, banking sharply to clamp to a stump. On an overcast day that resembled late evening this time of year we watched a short-eared owl hunt and perch to dine at 3 p.m. A peregrine falcon worked the same area. For close to five minutes we watched it flap laps before finally arrowing down to display the cruising speed for which it is notorious, flushing all the birds within a mile radius.

From the trapping site we also sighted 60 lapland longspurs undulating above fresh foliage, twice as large as the biggest shorebird time step we’ve seen.

Last Tuesday the Kenai Wildlife Refuge delivered a re-supply. The key item was the water filter. We no longer have to boil water, a time-consuming, sweat-inducing task that wasted wood. And the treated taste is no treat. This is no hand-pump purifier. We pour water into a bucket, leave the cabin for a day or go to sleep and presto! We basically have a Culligan Man in the cabin. It’s incredible. Conversing with a refuge pilot was a welcome departure from our repetitious routine.

My favorite birds of late are the wood birds we hear from the cabin’s yard almost daily, yet rarely see — varied thrush, yellow-rumped warbler, ruby-crowned kinglet and rusty blackbird. Their alluring aura far exceeds their aural charms and animates my imagination. I picture them switching perches or twitching farther into the forest.

We added two more “invisible” birds this week. The olive-sided flycatcher vocalized our last visit to plot two. Let me count on my muddy fingers — that was Thursday, which puts the hermit thrush arrival on Friday, May 21. That was the last 2009 species from which we were waiting to hear.

That swell spell seems cast out of a cave and piped through stalactite chimes by three birds, rather than one. I indulge to support a neat point — nature saved the best birdsong for last.

Sean Ulman received his MFA degree in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. He and his wife, biologist Sadie Ulman, are conducting a two-year bird survey on the Chickaloon Flats.

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1 Comment

Filed under birds, ecology, outdoors, Winging it

One response to “Winging It: Patience nets results as bird migrations progress

  1. TOM G

    Sean, Your writing takes me right out on the flats with you. Oh to be so thrilled over a water purifier! Tom Gearing

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