Winging In: Rare visitor gets 1st look

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Sadie Ulman. The Wilson’s phalarope poke around a pond on the Chickaloon flats recently.

The Kenai Bird List has a new member. Wilson’s phalarope will be filed under extremely rare once Sadie’s photographs are officially confirmed.

Stumbling on a pair of the striking, black-white-and-red striped shorebirds in the final week of our spring season, we produced the first sighting on the Kenai Peninsula of this odd Alaska visitor and added it to the top of our relatively minor project and life lists.

Proud to be a part of earning a significant Alaska observance dot for Chickaloon flats, I reflected on how such a chance sighting is dependent on fortuitous timing.

Setting out to camp six miles northeast on the Chickaloon River, we underestimated the impact of 50-pound packs. Attempting to cross the slough that snakes around the cabin I felt pounded down, as if by a mallet, into soupy mud. After I frantically crawled to safety, we packed light bags and planned a more reasonable day trip to the river. That swap scheduled a return trip that night, which is when we discovered the pair erratically feeding among three lesser yellowlegs on a remote pond. Bushed from the long trek, our binoculars packed to ensure smoother hiking, the phalaropes were like a mirage in the sun-splashed pool. Under 8×30 vision details tightened — black legs, black mask, the female’s salmon-washed flanks and white Mohawk. Snapping several photos (significant sightings require photographic evidence for verification), Sadie enjoyed her favorite type of birding moment — correctly identifying a bird the first time she has ever seen it in the wild.

Rarely wandering off our plots, this was our first extended scouting adventure. Returning to the location two days later we failed to find the long-legged phalaropes. Speculating that the nomadic pair was stopping over rather than nesting on the flats, it would seem that so many timing elements would have to align to allow the unforgettable encounter. What if we hadn’t napped beside the river or napped for more than a half hour? Or wandered around the river’s bend in search of two footprints of razed cabins? Or if Sadie had decided to retrace our steps rather than lead us back south to the wetter marsh edge? I suppose choice may play some role in chance.

Later that week it was hard to not consider the function of timing in birding when we conducted nest checks and happened to be present midhatch for a mew gull and a semipalmated plover chick kicking out their shells.

Back in town benefiting from showers and groceries while re-acclimating to cars, computers and conversation, I find myself tempted to peek back at the season so far.

Midseason report

  • Best bird besides Wilson’s phalarope: Semipalmated plover.

We scantly spotted this species last summer. However, this spring the big-eyed bulky shorebird made almost every daily list after May 15. We trapped one, found two pretty nests (each with four eggs arranged with tops touching in the center, like a flower) and saw three hatched chicks. The parents’ broken wing-splayed tail displays were such a show that I often obliged the stressed bird by following it away from the nest.

  • Most underrated bird: Bonaparte’s gull.

It’s my opinion that gulls get a bad rap in the birding world and are cast off as annoying or noisy or because they all look the same. This sharp, ashen-headed, crimson-legged, shrimpy gull was hard to ignore with its ternlike calls. It was seen about every third day and viewed as a bonus to our daily counts.

  • Best game: Rummy 500. Current score — Sadie 3,520 to my 2,910.
  • Best meal: Monster mashed potatoes (fried sausage and mushrooms) with biscuits and gravy and Mae Ploy sauce.
  • Best new field item: BakePacker stovetop oven.

This was a close call. Hand-crank radio, water filter and soccer ball all received votes, but the best meal wouldn’t have been possible without baked biscuits. And besides providing delicious desserts like brownies and pear cake, this item spelled the monotony of oatmeal and granola for breakfast every morning.

  • Most essential item of gear: Lacrosse hip waders.

Last year I ripped through my hip and chest waders prior to halfway through the project. This season Sadie sprung a leak in her chest waders on day three! Putting on my durable waders every day is as consoling as my morning cup of coffee. Comfort in the field is paramount to morale.

  • Best book: “Arctic Dreams,” by Barry Lopez.

This is the best writing I’ve read about wildlife, Alaska and Alaska Natives. Perhaps the timing of when I picked it up factors into my favoring it, as I had re-read a couple books that didn’t live up to my memorable first readings and I was growing a bit bored with birding.

One of the author’s main themes that struck me was the concept of having a relationship with the landscape. Right off it baffled me. How does an individual go about forging such grand rapport? The author’s continuous arguments for having respect for landscape helped me beyond my initial notions of grateful interaction — picking up trash, planting trees, walking far around a flock of geese to not disturb them. My interpretation suggested that one must take time contemplating landscape, soak it up with all our senses, and try to observe natural phenomena beneath the surface or a number of ways. Fortunately, I had time to practice this complicated concept.

Rather than stepping around spiderwebs I began kneeling to scrutinize the aesthetic threadwork. Or I’d let my eyes glaze over a field of web nets glowing like honeycombs in the evening sun. I’d reflect at length on a black bear, like a playful child balancing on a sidewalk curb, choosing to lumber along a log as it crossed an open field. When a sandhill crane snapped open its umbrella of orange-rusted wings, I watched the brown bear that had scared it considerately cock its head to artfully, rather than hungrily, eye the bird. “Bears are birders,” I told Sadie back at camp as we discussed the day’s highlights.

Rather than walking off after sufficiently watching perched birds, I started to look longer and study the bird’s behavior and songs, often waiting until the bird flew from view. We heard our share of flycatchers, but when the only alder and olive-sided flycatcher individuals we saw perched at the same time in nearby spruces, I cogitated on the coincidence gratefully. We were at Big Indian Creek camp, where we heard the majority of flycatchers and the sun had just come out. So was it even a coincidence?

I made an effort to look at light a number of ways. How sun passing through a bird’s wing gave the flying apparatus a transparent sheen. The marsh at clear dawn and dusk was painted in orange and red patinas, while throughout the day the yellow straw of last season competed with the new greens. Plants, loaded with a surplus of solar energy, seemed to shoot discernibly higher overnight. Clouds that slice across the sun could break the marsh up into bars of light and shadow. I know I have a long way to go on this journey of understanding landscape. Likely a lifetime. The privilege of spending another couple months in the wild classroom of Chickaloon flats will help me continue on.

Toward the end of our spring, after hard days of muck trekking, I found myself often thinking that this mudflat country was not intended for humans. It wasn’t until the last week that I progressed to a broader brighter contention.

None of it ever was.

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.


1 Comment

Filed under birds, Winging it

One response to “Winging In: Rare visitor gets 1st look

  1. Tom

    Thank you for the great read. You put me right there, even though I’m in Wisconsin. I especially enjoyed your “best of” series. Sounds as though you have a big handful of chapters for another Alaskan adventure book. Keep it up! I want more!

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