By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter
Back at the Chickaloon Flats, standing on Pincher Creek cabin’s porch, I see black flies swirling, dirtying the grassy vista. Nausea from the plane ride tumbles my system. A paper wasp stings the back of my head. But this unexpected rude return soon proves to be a fleeting ruse.
The adrenaline, tapped for the sting, quickly quells my queasiness. We spray and smash the nest, for it dangles above the cabin door. As a sort of apology for scientific work tuneup, we inspect the fist-sized hive’s design — honeycombed cubbies harboring pulsing, perishing larva.
I go for a walk. Half a kilometer along, the full cure sets in.
In Seward, I cramped muscles biking, hiking Mount Marathon and overthrowing hanging curveballs. Here in the field, fresh air filling my lungs, the sense of the ocean and marsh treating my nose, the twist in my lower back uncoils, my quads limber, my mind sighs, ending its muddling streak of surveilling and judging its repetitive unproductive thoughts.
I had many mysterious headaches in town. Slight temple tappings are clogging in the occipital lobe like drying cement. Regarding the culprit, I had theories: car rides, computer screens, cramped indoor air, rainy gray weather.
Now ambling under the evening sun, a warm breeze brushing my cheeks, keeping the flies off, I understand what happened. It wasn’t town throwing me so much as a lack of the Flats. After eight weeks in the field, my mind and body were fine-tuned to Chickaloon. The tang of the air, the squish of the mud, the daily routine of hiking many miles, a plain low-fat diet (oats, nuts, dried fruit). And the joys of observing a variety of avifauna in their very natural habitat.
My body had become a mud-striding machine, made for mounting mucky banks or skipping skinny slough cuts. Meanwhile, my mind had prepared for a whole summer, another seven weeks of field life. I forgot to factor in the break.
A blue dragonfly hovers over a patch of peach-tinged goosetongue. Beyond the stripes of knee-high green seaside arrow grass, large alkali grass (pink, celadon, straw), and parched stonewashed mud, a lane of crimson glasswort suggests a cranberry bog.
With joy, I consider the upgrade from pavement and carpets to the colorful vegetative floors and other lopsided trades attached to the lifestyle swap. Binoculars replacing wallet. Wood stove versus electric, book instead of digital screens. Collecting data rather than entering it. Ocean, mountains, wilderness replacing streets, sidewalks and trailer interiors.
Birds are back. Southward migrants supplement the breeders that spend the summer. We know this from the dramatic increase in least sandpipers and greater yellowlegs, two species whose numbers had dwindled to a handful a week the first half of June when shorebirds are typically nesting.
Every 100 meters flushed least sandpipers’ squeak “streeep brreeep.” A mixed flock of yellowlegs draft behind a 100-count time step of dowitchers. I follow the 20 yellowlegs as they land in a pool. Side by side, the greaters are gigantic, their breasts, flanks and wings checkered with crisper black, white and gray flecks, as opposed to the lessers’ washed-out finish and bland gray bibs. However, seeing singles, especially in shadowed lighting or from a distance, makes for difficult IDs.
So I take advantage of the influx of greaters, studying their calls — coarser and deeper than lessers — and gawky, more exaggerated, erratic foraging forays.
The next day, walking to fill water on Plot 1 (as opposed to driving to Safeway), we treat a nearby perched merlin’s accelerating, strident screams as an invitation to approach. Walking slowly, stopping every 10 strides, we get within 30 meters of its chosen ghost spruce tree, close enough to see its ashy blue cape, reddish streaked breast and yellow beak and talons without binoculars.
A common loon’s looping sound logo gets creased by a red-tailed hawk’s tailing squeal. We heard this Harlan’s red-tailed hawk subspecies call three single times, one day in April, May and now July. But once we hear that ominous scream that Hollywood often mistakes for eagles or vultures and plays over a desert or deserted city scene, we know it’s here. The raptor, captured on our third daily list, has revealed itself.
On the fall’s first survey, I spot a chock-full flock of black birds skimming the shoreline. I sprint in order to count and determine which brand of scoters they are. One hundred and four white-wing scoters swing out to sea, circle in for another pass and pull back out.
Shortly after that private festival with the fall’s first new 2010 species, I hear another black and white marvel — one of my favorites from the spring — “booo-weeeeep.”
Twenty-one black-bellied plovers roost near the tide line, four tucked-in, short-billed dowitchers tucked in too, splashing orange into the zebra’d bird pattern.
I stash my pack 20 yards up mud (we’re 20 minutes shy of high tide). Camera in hand, I crawl, commando-style, shuffling elbows and knees. Within 15 yards, I lift up slowly. The birds stay still. I snap two photos. In both, the plovers are barely visible. That’s OK. I don’t need photos to prove that I’m here. I feel totally back.
I’m pretty good at mimicking a black-bellied plover call. It’s tempting to test it out and make their heads turn. But it’s better if they don’t know I’m here.
I crawl back to my dry pack, the tide 10 feet shy of it. A minute to spare.
Sean Ulman received his MFA 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 for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.