Category Archives: Winging it

Winging It: Mating season a sweet-sounding time for birding

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

The birding calendar has turned to breeding season. Field crews, deployed to remote regions of the 49th State, are trudging tundra and mudflats searching for nest treasure chests.

I flew home to southern Massachusetts on May 31, within the bird world’s window of rest between migratory travels.

Stepping onto my childhood swamp-side yard, relishing nostalgic aromas, familiar songs seem new again. I compartmentalize my hearing, trying to pick out a cardinal’s mingled whistles among the bells and teasing wheezes of tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees and flying finches’ chips and piks. A big voice elevators decibels, chanting several syllables, conjuring a go-to grouping for voice guessing — Carolina wren, common yellowthroat, ovenbird? Staccato nasal notes — “nah, nuh” — precede two white-breasted nuthatches, rather than Seward’s common red-breasted nuthatch, landing on overhead feeders. A mourning dove “cooo coo coos” on a bowed limb, flaunts its lime-mauve neck glitter, and leaps, snapping wings clapping.

Birding’s courting/singing/listening scene, which precedes the quiet nesting-hatching season, and follows the shorebirding season on the Kenai Peninsula, for me, can still be eloquently experienced even as many adults settle into long hours logged sitting on nests. Theories as to why noncourting birds are still belting — territorial, communication or for the recreation, joy or art of singing. It’s a special time to identify birds because every species found on a yard or town list can also be added to a list of that place’s likely breeders. While the individual pine siskin you might have heard ripping a long strip “zreeeee” may not be a nesting individual, its proven sustained presence in an area this time of year likely confirms its species as a local breeder.

The following musical tour will trade off paragraphs exhibiting birds observed in Massachusetts from May 31 to June 14 and Seward from June 1 to June 23.

In a pondside shrubby prairie bordered by white pine, stippled with cedar, a prairie warbler pitches its rising eight-syllable “zee zee zee zee zee zee zee zee,” as though it’s moving farther away with each note, gifting a hint to its location atop a beech tree, as if insisting we scope its black mask and stripes laid over rich, color-wheel yellow, which we do.

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Winging It: To wit, godwit — Get to spring shorebirding while the getting’s good

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Sludgy steps on giving ground (sedge aged to straw, sprung green shoots, gushy mud) sets a

Photo courtesy of Sean Ulman. A birder glasses for shorebirds on the tidal flats of Seward along Resurrection Bay. Now is a great time for birding and as they stop over at various Kenai Peninsula locations on their migratory journeys.

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.

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Winging It: Flushing out spring sightings

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of John Skinner. Campers hike out along the shore of Resurrection Bay from Seward for a spring birding trip.

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.

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Winging It: Bird feeding good views

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Sean Ulman. A flock of gray-crowned rosy finches indulges in birdseed strewn in a yard in Seward earlier this winter.

Upon moving back to Seward, I put three bird feeders up before the heat was turned on. The yard list — birds seen in the yard or from the yard or within a certain distance of the yard, depending on how you’re keeping score — seemed to start out with a bang. Hauling travel bags inside, I looked up and saw a northern flicker, perched in a sip of sun on our deck railing before it flew across the street into a scruffy spruce tree. Or did I see it?

We had observed many red-shafted flickers on our drive west through Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Washington. The field marks I noted in the sunshine-flickering three-second encounter on the deck — blue-gray face, speckled breast, streaked jacket, rosy under-wing wash — had become relatively routine.

It dawned on me that flickers might be fairly uncommon in Alaska. So I noted the potentially notable bird, looked forward to seeing this woodpecker regularly and carried on with my arrival errands.

I never saw that fickle flicker again. It’s noted on our yard list with a bold “?”. The entries for great blue heron and mallard are noted f/o, for flyover. A sharp-shinned hawk that wisely learned to stalk our stocked feeding station is listed with a fly-thru postscript. Continue reading

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Winging It: Field day done — Birders head south

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Aug. 24-25 — Two hundred thirty-seven skyway-weary Canada geese put down to rest on Pond 7 as we set out to begin the project’s final survey on Plot 2. There is a full-circle sense of renewal, since Canada geese were here by the hundreds when we arrived in April, as well as the thrill of getting a clear look at a species we haven’t seen in months.

We scout out a grassy hummock apt for observing, about 150 meters from the pond. Goose spook more sensitively than the Northern pintail and shoveler we saw roost on this pond all summer. The courting red-necked phalaropes we watched spin and hop here in late May didn’t shy away when we were on the pond’s edge, about 10 meters from the birds. The sneak is foiled prior to our first steps.

The gunning hum of a floatplane motor ratchets up at accelerating octaves. The geese lift and circuitously circle shoreward in aggravated bursts and retreats as the low-flying aircraft glides directly over the pond.

After the survey we walk home by milky starlight with a discernible dearth of our typical pass-the-time gab. Silence paces the casual ceremony.

On our final morning we wake to splashes and slashing sun. After swabbing the sleep out of her eyes, Sadie confirms the sight of a harbor seal slinking along the slough that horseshoes around our cabin. I rush out of bed just in time to see the sentient seal’s sun-slimed head and receive its sovereign send-off before it cruises with the outgoing tide, more than a mile back to sea. Continue reading

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Winging It: Make a list, check it twice to find birding fun

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. Continue reading

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Winging It: Bird migration starts to reverse direction at Chickaloon Flats

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Sean Ulman. A short-billed dowitcher s surveyed on the Chickaloon Flats.

Aug. 11-Aug. 15 — Half a click to our trapping site, a yellowlegs swings around us and boomerangs back to the compound of ponds that has been packed lately with the greater (bigger tringa) species.

This sentinel sounds like a lesser. Its pitch is pinched to a higher part. Streaking by, it also appears to measure shorter — stunted beak to straight-out legs. Anticipating arriving to a pond loaded with lessers, I decide that no bird symbolizes birding at Chickaloon for me better than either yellowlegs. We soon learn that all 11 foraging miniature ostriches are greaters with olive-based bills, which means the messenger was likely a juvenile greater yellowlegs.

The fall migration is protracted. Birds move south in less urgent pulses than the race north to the breeding grounds. Yet, in all likelihood, we are past the major movement of the adult lesser yellowlegs and adult short-billed dowitchers. We haven’t seen a lesser since Aug. 8 and we went four days without a dowitcher. We’re still catching adult greaters.

Juvenile shorebirds leave the breeding grounds after adults. We’re expecting those young visitors as well as adult pectoral sandpipers any day now.

We saw a young arctic tern with a partially filled gray head patch and a charcoal juvenile mew gull on Aug. 14. This was our first tern since presumed Chickaloon parents and young left us July 28. The mew gull departure caught me off guard when I totaled up my daily count on July 16.

For five days, 30-foot-plus flood tides spilled over, morphing the marsh and mud into a temporary water world. Familiar with the comprehensive sheet flow action on Plot 1, a liquid quilt tucks in near the runway. We set out two hours shy of high tide to survey the water works on Plot 2. Our daily virtual Frogger video game routine — leaping gut ruts, hopping hummock to hummock — took on an accelerated degree of difficulty. Sloughs became blown-out aquifers. The submerged board was boobied with sinkhole traps. It was like a futuristic bonus stage. It was fun. The trick was to aim for areas flagged with seaside arrow grass stalks.

We remained relatively dry and confirmed that Plot 2 isn’t as susceptible to sheet flow. Sloughs turned spates funneled the water in. Six hours after the high tide, most of the water has swept back to sea and the large and creeping alkali grasses, which had displayed straw and rosy tints, are burnished a dusty sage.

Visiting the last of our random GPS points to classify vegetation, we found another secret Frogger level. Wading through shoulder-high bluejoint and beach rye grass, I was chopped down several times by hitting twisted-in driftwood tripwires. Game over.

On Aug. 13 at 11:37 p.m., we saw our first hooter of the fall, perched on the tallest spruce snag in the timberline across from the cabin. Aided by brightening binoculars, I watched a great horned owl lift its tail as it hooted and then set sail. Cadenced-stiff wing whips propelled the bowling ball bird toward the candled pins and blinking bulbs of Anchorage.

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.

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