By Jenny Neyman
As the dance that is the turning of the seasons quickens pace from the slow winter waltz to the sprightly jig of spring, wildlife picks up its pace, as well. On the Kenai Peninsula, bears emerging from dens, moose dropping calves and caribou migrating to their summer territory might get the most notice from humans this time of year, but for those with an eye for it, a more intricate choreography can be seen.
Unseen under the water, hooligan are returning to the rivers, drawing in more visible, yet still special-to-see visitors — beluga whales.
“In the spring and fall we have belugas coming in. This is the time of year and the sightings have gone up,” said Ken Tarbox, with the Keen Eye Birders group and a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist.
Belugas tend to hang out in the mouth of the Kenai River around river miles three and four, although they’ve been known to go up past the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge on Bridge Access Road. This year they’ve been sighted as far upstream as Kenai Landing, and also pushing up Cook Inlet past Salamatof toward Nikiski.
“They’re obviously coming in here, poking around, feeding and doing their thing,” Tarbox said. “We’ve counted as many as 30 whales before, but this year I think the peak count so far is 12 seen in one group going up the river.”
Not only is it exciting to catch a glimpse of the white undulations breaking the water’s surface, the sightings have scientific value, as well. The National Marine Fisheries Service catalogs all beluga sightings in Cook Inlet, with as much detail as reporters can include — time, date, location of sighting, number of whales seen, number of calves seen, activity, direction of travel, etc. But before the information gets to NMFS, Tamara McGuire with LGL Alaska hopes the reports come her way to aid in her continuing photo-identification projects of belugas in the inlet.
Belugas bear distinctive marks — scars from injuries or infections — that stay with them throughout their lives, making them visually distinct and identifiable. Since 2005, McGuire has been photographing inlet belugas, building a database and distinguishing individuals by the marks on their left and right sides so that more insight can be gleaned from future sightings, such as about their habitat and migratory patterns.
The project has primarily focused on Upper Cook Inlet — around Anchorage, Knik Arm, Turnagain Arm and the Susitna area. In 2011, the Kenai Peninsula Borough divvied up federal money it was granted to gather information about belugas in borough waters to fund several scientific projects. Among them was LGL expanding its photo identification project to the borough-area waters of mid Cook Inlet.
From 2011 to 2013, LGL identified 85 belugas in borough-area waters, with 78 percent found in Turnagain Arm, 22 percent in Chickaloon Bay/South Fire Island and 9 percent in the Kenai River delta.
One of the questions LGL hoped to settle is whether belugas around the Kenai River in the spring and fall were a separate group from those that frequent the northern inlet. And indeed, they are not.
“The whales that we were able to identify from the Kenai River, we were able to match them up with a lot of the whales we see up by Anchorage. The ones we were able to identify look like they were the same ones, so that was pretty interesting,” McGuire said.
Only three of the whales seen around the Kenai were new to the catalog. The other 82 were re-sightings of whales previously identified farther north. But though the whales were the same, their combinations were not.
“Once we were able to really zoom in on photos and look at the marks we realized the individuals were ones we already recognized, but the group composition would change. It was not always the same group, the individuals in the group composition would change from time to time,” she said.
Researchers also documented several calves in borough-area waters. Of the 85 belugas documented in 2011 to 2013, 58 whales (68 percent) were presumed to be reproductive females, as they were seen with a calf close in tow at least once in 2005 to 2011, and 31 of those were photographed with calves in more than one year.
“We saw calves down there in the Kenai River and off of the beach. One had been a calf we had seen up by the Susitna River years ago, and we saw it as an older individual with its mom down by the Kenai River, so it was exciting to see a whale that we recognized as a youngster and see it growing up down there,” McGuire said.
Over the three years of the project, beluga sightings established some consistent patterns, as far as when and where the whales were likely to be seen.
“What was remarkable to me is they were pretty much the same in the three years of the study, so I think there’s real value to be gained just from keeping track of the local reports of where the whales are and when they’re there. If you look at tables of the patterns, it’s remarkable how strong they are year from year. And it could change by a couple weeks here and there, but in general in spring and fall, where they are and how they move from the west side to the east side, that held out,” she said.
There were a few anomaly sightings, though, including belugas seen in deeper waters near Kalgin Island and the Tyonek oil and gas platform in November and December, two sightings of a beluga in the Kenai River in February 2013, and of a group of belugas south of Ninilchik in March 2013.
Public participation was vital in the project. LGL asked anyone and everyone to submit sightings through its website, www.cookinletbelugas.com. That way McGuire could make targeted trips by boat or plane to photograph the whales when they were likely to still be around.
“It really helped me to plan when to do the photo id trips because the presence of the whales down there is still really spotty — you could have a group down there one day and then nothing the next — so having that information from people that live and work down there really helped with being able to time that,” she said.
Sightings came from fishermen, pilots, the media, law enforcement officers, large vessel operators, tourists, biologists, educators, environmentalists, oil industry employees and general residents. And McGuire hopes that the sightings reports keep coming. Though the borough pass-through funding has expired, McGuire would still like to keep tabs on belugas in the Kenai area as much as her remaining funding sources allow. But to do that, she needs eyes on the Kenai.
“I’m trying to find ways to expand that into Kenai, especially since we got the momentum going and made good contact. We were thrilled to have gotten the opportunity and do some studies down there and really got things going, and then it was like, ‘Oh, darn,’ (the money’s gone),” McGuire said. “I’m still keeping track, though. It’s great — I’ve gotten a lot of people calling in the reports, a lot of volunteers down along the river and up by Nikiski, so we’re still getting reports from them, and I’m trying to find ways to get money to get down there to keep some of the surveys going.”
To report a beluga sighting, submit it online at http://www.cookinletbelugas.com or call McGuire at 907-562-3339. McGuire then forwards all reports to NMFS for its records.
If a whale is seen dead or in distress, though, immediately report it to the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline at 877-925-7773.
The mouth of the Kenai is home to more than just belugas this time of year, as migratory birds are also making their way north.
“Things are just starting to show up. We saw our first yellowlegs here just a few days ago, so the shorebirds are just starting to arrive,” Tarbox said. “It’s just kind of nice to see the activity increasing at the flats and the people are down there watching the birds and enjoying the spring.”
Waterfowl numbers have been low so far this year compared to last, Tarbox said, but that’s probably due to conditions. Breakup came late last spring, and early this year.
“When you have a late spring like last year and there’s snow and ice and everything they just short stop. There’s limited areas for them to feed, and there’s nothing north for them to feed on so they kind of hold up and wait until things clear out, then they can head north. We had some open areas where they were feeding (last year) so they piled in here,” he said. “When you have a spring like we have this year where the snow’s basically gone, and it’s gone on the west side, they can just fly right over the top. And so it’s hard to know if the population is down or if they’re flying over the top, but I think most people are suspecting they’re migrating on and they’re not staying long, they’re moving on north.”
There’s still plenty of interesting things to see at the birding and wildlife-viewing platform on Bridge Access Road, however.
“There’s thousands of gulls down there right now, they’re already setting up their nesting territories. And last night we had a report of Eurasian widgeons, as opposed to American widgeons they’ve got a real reddish head, so they’re fun to see,” Tarbox said Monday.
“I think the other thing that’s interesting to watch, it’s not only looking at the number of species but watching the behavior, the interaction between the different species. It’s all interesting,” he said.
Sunday night down on the flats, 15 feet in front of the car, Tarbox witnessed a juvenile bald eagle attempt to prey on a mallard.
“It missed. It came swooping down to get the female, (the mallard) jumped up and started to get in the air and realized that wasn’t the area to go and just took a nose dive right into the water. The young eagle missed totally and was totally discombobulated. That’s fun to watch. So if you want to watch predator-prey interactions this is the time to do it,” he said.
Coming in May 15 to 18 is the annual Kenai Birding Festival. The festival unofficially kicks off with an opening of the youth PEEPs Art Show at the Kenai Fine Arts Center from 6 to 8 p.m. May 2, with the show on display all through May. Then, May 15 to 18 will be packed with birding-related activities — a Kenai River float trip, guided birding tours, a showing of the film, “The Big Year,” a 24-hour birding watch on the Kenai birding platform and much more. For more information and a schedule of events, visit www.kenaiwatershed.org/education/shorebird.html. To get on the Kenai Eye Birders’ mailing list, email Tarbox at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s just a great time to be there, and the shorebirds will definitely be coming through. And, of course, there are other birds to see here at that time, so it’ll be good,” Tarbox said.