By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter
Ah, the infinite intricacies of birding.
A weekend seaside camping trip with five wildlife-aware hikers highlighted the hobby’s varying perspectives — the angles, lessons, puzzles, stories (near misses), close calls, split-second circumstances, the gem boxes of curiosities, etc., as we warm toward the migration holiday season.
Hitting the Tonsina trail in Seward, I tuned my ears and eyes to “sensitive,” or “bird survey” mode, as I strapped down my snowshoes. A common/uncommon awareness dawned on me again. “Whenever you’re outside, and not even in a forest, wetland or natural area, and even when there aren’t any birds around, you’re birding.”
“Hang on, I hear something,” I told the hiker beside me early on our stomp. We stopped. The ripened silence had corridors — quiet, quieter, the ch-ch shutter of softened snow bits tumbling onto the trail. After a minute, “Nothing.” We continued walking.
The squeaky snowshoe/songbird piped with every left foot lift.
Crossing a bridge over a river that spills into the sea, the lead hiker detected a real bird call. Our silence was served this time.
Spritzy high-pitched burbles purled a trembled timbre. The call locator suggested, “Pacific wren,” a species she had heard and even seen in this area that edges a rainforest of giant moss-clothed Sitka spruce. We heard it again. Softer, muffled, compound mousey jumbles.
“American dipper,” I suggested, since a middle doubled aspect of the vocalization reminded me of a reedy Segway element (brrr-brrr) between the dipper’s sweet tweets. And because such a species fit the river habitat.
Several times this winter I had seen these charming blue bobbers swim and dunk in open river pools and duck under ice-ledged banks. And because the ID was up for grabs. We hadn’t seen the bird. And the call had clues but wasn’t a clincher. The bird stopped calling.
As we curled onto the beach a raptor, riding out glib glides between bent-wing rigid wingbeats, distracted me from the missed chance to pin down the lil‘ lifer (I’d seen a winter wren, but the Pacific classification wasn’t recently designated, splitting one species to two). I got the binoculars up quick to enjoy the northern goshawk’s stalwart propulsion and steel-gray blueness — a color akin to the cobalt-dipped American dipper I’d just seen bouncing about in my imagination.
Evening marine sightings — orca whale, pigeon guillemot, herring gulls, Barrows goldeneyes — ended in the beach below the cabin with a prize. An all-white chicken/dovelike bird flushed from the wooded yard where we would hunt for pink and yellow Easter eggs the next day.
“Ptarmigan, ptarmigan!” we called. I fumbled the binocs a bit but found the rapid wing-snapping game bird swinging around the cove over the ocean. Total viewing time five seconds, tops.
White-tailed ptarmigan? Willow ptarmigan? Rock ptarmigan? We didn’t see any black on the tail, or anywhere, but the rock and willow males are almost all white, too, “with black tail feathers often concealed,” the Sibley guide abides. No vocalization.
This sighting was long over a minute later when the other four hikers, hiking a just a bit behind, within shouting distance, had arrived and received the bittersweet update of what they’d missed.
In the morning, the pleasant conditions (sunny, no wind, low tide) drew us out early-ish for
beach walks. Four groups — two twos and two ones — adventured staggered, within 20 minutes. Only one group, a single, timed out right to enjoy a black oystercatcher foraging in the pebbly, kelp-sheeted seashore. Had I not been searching for a lost disc golf disc (for 20 minutes! — on the impromptu round’s first throw!), I’d have aligned better to add another local bird to my life list.
The next day, returned to town from the cabin trip, I walked the shore three blocks from my house. In the tranquil I watched a pigeon guillemot gobble a fish, three black scoter drakes and one hen preening and playing, four surf scoters winging in, 200 herring gulls hopping to and fro three noisy galleys around buoys.
Strolling the shore, sitting here and there, lying down winking at the sun warming my face, doing the jubilant poolside lay laze, I was thinking, “There’s good bird action here.” Stuff was moving in. I recalled a lesson I learned in the field from sitting out chilly, hourlong pond surveys — if you stay in the same place, especially if that place is good bird habitat, something really neat might happen. The longer you wait, the more time you put in birding, the better chances you have.
On my third sit, closed eyes sun gaze, I heard chatty — grunting? Grating? Cheeping? And the slightest snapping. Sitting up quick I watched the two zipping, flapping birds whip along the bending shoreline out of view. Three seconds (maybe less) might have passed between when I first heard the birds’ flight-call and their disappearance.
With such quick sightings, it’s probably better to not even bother with binoculars, I thought, as I glassed the empty space above the glassy, sun-glossed bay.
The bird I immediately associated with this sighting was a Wilson’s snipe. I doubt it was a snipe, nor a black-bellied plover (another good size and better seasonal match), due to my familiarity with these species from numerous observations on the Chickaloon Flats.
Floundering for species that fit the time of year, location, size and speed, I considered Hudsonian godwit, marbled murrellet, Lapland longspur or bufflhead. Quite a range, I know. Nevertheless, the good luck I had earned hanging out on the shore deemed me satisfactorily stumped.
The next dawn I awoke to the searing, single-note buzz, like electricity or a buzz saw, of the varied thrush. Right then (indoors, head on the pillow), I definitively had my first thrush of the year, so observing it four hours later perched and zing-singing on a spruce right across the street was a nice bonus.
Approaching migration season, I’m considering how birding can be such an individualistic experience — interpretative, inviting of speculation, and how different birders can hear and see different things — as I eagerly await both the simple first-of-season sightings and nature’s pending, imposing, birding puzzles.
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, conducted a two-year bird survey on the Chickaloon Flats for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and wrote about their experiences for the Redoubt Reporter. She currently has a position at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, while Ulman works on his upcoming book.