By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter
Aug. 17-Aug. 23 — A day before six sunny days, nature gifted us a notable visitor that made the falling mist seem invisible and elementally fogged our memory of the monthlong rain.
Bundled within a group of 14 long-billed dowitchers foraging sewing-machine style, and 30 greater yellowlegs, I pointed out a smaller bird with a sandy bib. I guessed it was a lesser yellowlegs, since we hadn’t seen one for a while. Sadie had a better memory and eye.
“No, man, that is some new rad bird!’’ she exclaimed, tightening her focus, quickly calculating the sum of some detailed equation of color, feather pattern, shape, behavior and posture. “Stilt sandpiper!’’
While my impulsive ID was off, I’d like to point out that I first pointed out the interesting bird, as well as its companion foraging farther back on the pond.
After compiling a thorough list of field marks — clear-cut white supercilium, long yellow legs shorter and paler than a yellowlegs’ legs, tawny scalloped feathering, long drooped bill aimed perpendicular into the pond during feeding — we took several photos and then relaxed our observation of the life bird, drawing out on the entire pond scene, skipping to hunched dowitchers and back to the stilts tilting forward to forage.
We had, in my opinion, an ideal life bird viewing — when you can walk away from the bird still in plain view having gotten your fill of various looks and study time.
Walking back, our elation was spiced with skepticism. We decided that there was no way that the birds were pectoral sandpipers. I had seen our first three pectoral sandpiper fall migrants earlier that afternoon.
“Bill and legs way too long,’’ Sadie said. “Maybe sharp-tailed sandpiper? Or Baird’s? But I’m pretty sure they have black legs and are smaller.’’
Back at the cabin, we eagerly flipped through guidebooks to seal the hunt. “Two juvenile stilt sandpipers, you bet.’’
I think this exercise encompasses an essence of the hobby or, certainly, beginning birding. I can recall not being able to see birds flying by or distinguish bird calls.
“They fly too fast,’’ I say. “It all just sounds like the woods.’’
Then, on my frequent forest jaunts, I started bringing a pair of binoculars. That skeleton key opened doors to birds more than 100 meters away. But I have to see the bird fly with my naked eye first. Hearing was harder. I guess I’d describe my getting over it as listening harder. I started halting to a standstill upon hearing a call. Or, if I was in a group, I’d tell party members to be quiet.
The clarity of calls unsurprisingly increases substantially with relative silence. I began to respect each and every bird sound, taking time to examine it as though I was looking at the bird. Pitch, pattern, rhythm, buzz, whistle. Some songs sound like two or more birds. I’d repeat the song with clumsy mimics. Before long, I realized that calls and songs were heavy hints of location, accurate cues to where to point my binoculars.
Watching birds sing is a great way to ensure future IDs if you recognize the bird by eye. The next time you hear that familiar song, you know it’s that bird. You don’t have to see it. On sunny May mornings, I could walk down Pincher Creek cabin’s steps and identify 10 or more birds without seeing a single one.
When unknown birds are silent, you must rely on sight, whether it be 8-by-40-power heightened or not. My recommended technique would be to stockpile field marks as fast as you can — overall color and shape, silhouette, behavior. But look harder. Bill shape, breast pattern, eye ring or streaks, bits of color splashed here or there, tail and legs tint and length. If you don’t have a field guide on hand, make a list to reference when you return from your walk.
Here’s a list I made on Aug. 20 when we came upon a Lapland longspur skittering between large alkali grass clumps. Sadie knew it was a female Lapland but, while I had seen them flying undulating loops at Chickaloon, especially lately, I had never seen one perch or on the ground, stationary, where I could make an opportunistic, practiced ID on it.
“Finch beak, ocher cheek panel, orangeish overall with rufous tertial and covert wing feathers, white belly, sandy streaks on sides, dark supercilium (eye streak), pale gray legs longer than a Savannah sparrow’s, closer to Fox sparrow’s legs.’’
I think that making IDs is necessary in order to fall for birding. Accurately knowing the species that use a piece of woods or prairie or stretch of coastline provides the birder confidence and presents a sense of broader environmental processes — migration, nesting, diminishing or expanding habitat, or resident or transplanted species.
When you know what type of birds frequent the woods behind your house or an area you frequent (hikes, hunting grounds, camping or canoe trips), you can, by keeping lists that note species and abundance, track intriguing changes.
Perhaps on June 7 you may have heard or seen several new birds (colorful warblers, say) on a trail you hike three times a summer. Checking the dates of last year’s bird lists (5/17, 7/12 and 8/21), you can determine that early June is the birdier or better time to hike that trail — i.e., after the birds have arrived but before they’ve stopped calling and settled down to nest and before they’ve flown south with their young.
Keeping lists can prove to be an ecologically significant tool, as well. You might see a species that is rare to Alaska or a more local area. Common observances also can be telling. Maybe the pair of merlins that perennially nest in your backyard did not show up this year. Or the thrushes vocalize two weeks earlier than they usually do. Or there could be many more red polls or pine siskins at your feeders this winter.
Tracking patterns in the avian world cannot only improve your odds of having more diverse and abundant birding outings, it’s also fun. And the potential for scientific significance, I think, tugs at a natural human calling.
The two juvenile Stilt sandpipers stayed at the same pond for three days. Setting up a net nearby apparently didn’t disturb them. On Aug. 19, they wandered under. If the lotterylike chance of capturing them again elsewhere comes through, banding them could reveal a lot about the birds’ growth and range. Having them in hand was a thrill and taking measurements undoubtedly confirmed our classification. But the close-up details hardly overshadowed our observances from 40 meters away two days earlier. We merely noted that they felt discernibly leaner than a pectoral sandpiper and that there was a slight protuberance on the bill tip, like a droplet of water. Alas, they never vocalized.
Our trapping pond and most others had dried up and thinned out birdwise two days later. We patiently waited for a pack of semipalmated sandpipers to travel 20 meters. Once we judged that two were under, we dropped. Rushing the net, we saw that both were caught. And that, suddenly, they weren’t. They had wiggled out and were flying away, peeping, fleeing taunts. So, as in life, hardly a day goes by in the field without ups and downs.
Aside from drying ponds (evaporating shorebird habitat), the sunny weather has, of course, been welcome. It has energized us to pull double sessions and finish strong. We have two days left.
Lit in grand light, the last looks at the sublime landscape already feel like memories. Prior to this rainy fall, our nearly 200 days of fieldwork have been dominated by sun.
I’m still searching for new looks — the grassy marsh tethered with glow webs spun from spiders’ looms, exposed horns on mountain ranges that stay snowcapped most of the summer, a brushy stretch of sweet gale and alder that bridges marsh to forest.
I think the melancholic feelings attached to our Chickaloon departure have passed. Goodbyes have been gratefully said. I feel closer to town life.
Three weeks ago I broke the handle on our crank radio. It has a solar panel. The sun is out. No birds are calling as I hear the first pitch of a Mariners-Red Sox series.
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.