By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter
Sludgy steps on giving ground (sedge aged to straw, sprung green shoots, gushy mud) sets a
menu for déjà vu flutterings for Chickaloon Flats. A greater yellowlegs calls “tew tew tew,” linking the two migratory stopover mudflats with a second sense. The big tringa (in the sandpiper family) flies from a black sandbar, exposed early by the drawing tide, to the rocky bank abutting the port. I filter in the background — stacked red and blue train crates, a long coal hill (like a colossal fuzzy caterpillar), mechanical cranes and Cat equipment, and industrial noise (throttling engines, metal meeting metal, coal clacking down a conveyor belt) — and the similarities between shoreline sites disintegrate.
Like Chickaloon, the head of Resurrection Bay — which birders can access by driving to the end of either Port Avenue or Airport Road — is a preferable stopping spot for migratory shorebirds. I’ve seen 15 species of shorebirds in Seward so far. The fact that friends of mine have three species on their lists supports our observation-based thesis that the shorebirds that grace Seward do so in brief visits. Individuals spotted snacking or resting one day are rarely re-sighted the next. Evening airport treks, featuring tucked birds displayed in lingering twilight, have been the densest birding sessions. Birds believed to have just landed are often assumed gone by the next morning.
The birding axioms that apply timing as axle, “You’ve got to hit it right,” and, “A little luck goes a long way,” appear well supported in Seward.
I redeemed my black oystercatcher miss two weeks after a cabin trip on Tonsina beach, across the bay at Fourth of July Beach. The two crowlike silhouettes at the back of a pack of beached Harlequin ducks had bright red bills long as chopsticks and a yellow eye with a ruby ring when I bino-lensed them. We found another big shorebird — a wandering tattler — under the bridge beyond the midtown ball yard’s right-center field wall. This smooth, gray, chunky bird popped its wings open to aid in hopping rocks wetted by this miniriver that drains into the bay.
While I’m still hunting for my first of spring Western sandpiper, dunlin and semipalmated sandpiper, my approach of visiting the airport flats, Seward’s densest bird-activity plot, several times a day on these rich, stretched hours of late April and early May has garnered some exhilarating sightings.
May 2 midday happened to be an especially choice time to take a writing break to bird. On the back puddle ponds, humped with grassy hummocks, we were treated to five American-golden plovers. The males of this big-eyed, black-bellied bird are caped with gold shingling. I focused my study on the smaller female with a gild-glittered mask, compared to the male’s black, filled-in face, before panning onto seven short-billed dowitchers feeding in a pond just to the left.
We had seen our first short-billed dowitchers of the season the night before. That was a pack of nine so we searched for two more before conjecturing that this was possibly a different band of birds.
Moving on to the big pond that opened ice-free significantly later than usual this year, we heard a run of piping trills. Imagine a shriller eagle giggle played on a sacred fife. Four whimbrel flapped a few long beats, then set gray wings stiff, before fluttering again to engage landing gear. A fifth bird (slightly smaller and orange-bellied; to wit, a godwit!) landed and tucked in with the whimbrel in the blond straw stripping the pond.
Checking for flagged or banded birds is a fun habit to work into the initial study of any bird. Such a discovery can assist with an identification and tell more of the bird’s story (where it’s been, about how old it is).
This napping godwit, which we speculated had too much orange on its neck, breast and vents to be a Hudsonian godwit, had an ornamental clue of carroty color — an orange flag. This label (blank, with no letter nor number code) confirmed this to be a more notable Seward visitor — a bar-tailed godwit. We’re waiting to hear confirmation, but it’s believed that the bird was banded in Victoria, Australia.
The evening of May 7, I was scheduled to work (serving tables) at 6 p.m. The sun bloomed around 4 p.m., setting up a pleasant night. Work was slow. There was no need for a second server. I delivered a plate of calamari, reset two tables and cut out.
Meanwhile, my two meticulous birding associates had called in a “shorebird of interest” bathing then foraging (voraciously) on the pebbly shore of a freshwater outflow off the airport pond. Peep size with yellow/green legs. We rushed to the scene, shorebird guide in tow.
So the four of us relished the rush of tackling the puzzle, scrutinizing a species that we all believed we were looking at for the first time, three scopes on the solo juvenile forager 20 yards in front of us. As it crept over fingernail-sized stones, tilting sideways as it doggedly prodded, its long toes came into clear view. One team member listed field marks cited in the Asiatic species section of the shorebird guide: “Obscure cheek patch,” check; “prominent white supercilium,” check; “dark forehead,” check; “greenish base of lower mandible,” check; with an asterisk, we detected a bit of a distinction presumed to become clearer in better light.
The best fit, because we couldn’t determine it wasn’t that, was a long-toed stint, an accidental
guest from Asia. We called in the reinforcements. Five diligent Seward birders were on the scene 20 minutes later. None of us had ever seen a long-toed stint. A trophy for North America lists, they are occasionally sighted on the Pribilof Islands.
We had all seen plenty of least sandpipers. And there was a general agreement that this solo bird had something different about it. Its size was leastlike but bigger. It moved slower, gawkier, with less zoom to its scoot than the leasts I became accustomed to observing on Chickaloon tidal mud. It was smiles all around as we assumed we were looking at a collective life bird. Many point-blank photos were snapped and posted on the Internet that night.
None of those photos convinced curious, bona fide birders outside of Seward that this mystery bird was not a least sandpiper. I don’t know of any birders who made the trek to inspect the bird up close and personally.
We returned the next day, May 8, and found the same bird feeding alone on the pebbly shore of the same slough. Two photographers crept within 10 feet. The bird barely budged. It continued feeding and eventually vocalized — a leastlike call, but more multinoted at the start, in my opinion. The bird was sighted again the next day, feeding alone on the same slough.
I am not saying this bird is a long-toed stint. I am not saying it is a least sandpiper. I am not saying it is not either bird. I am saying, given the whole megillah of details observed in person (behavior, habitat, relatively lengthy length of stay, loneliness, in addition to the indistinct diagnostics), that there is something peculiar about this bird.
I am also saying, officially, that although I don’t have the birding ability to identify this peep, it has been a lot of fun taking cracks at cracking it; and that I was lucky that work was slow that evening of the first viewing, so I could participate in the thrilling invalid victory.
Sean Ulman wrote a column for the Redoubt Reporter about birding and field life while working as technician on the Chickaloon Flats for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He’s rounding the bend on a long novel about Seward and art.