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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Winging It: Rain can’t dampen prime birding … much

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Sean Ulman. A flock of sandpipers takes wing over the Chickaloon Flats.

Aug. 4-9 — A rainy fortnight has obscured my scope this season. I’ve become accustomed to looking through fogged binocular lenses blurred by globules and glancing down at smudged figures on crumpled write-in-the-rain data sheets.

Since we have been dashing out under leaden, temporary dry skies bearing the inevitable drizzle-to-downpour conditions, birding has felt a lot more like working.

But during every work session at some point, or several, I’m reminded that it is birding first and foremost and often first-rate.

On Wednesday, Aug. 4, the all-day rain relented at 7 p.m., cracking a three-hour window of time to conduct a transect survey. In the hustle to hastily pack a bag and rush out of the cabin toward the blue sky bleeding above mountains spackled with sun, I forgot to bring bug spray.

No bug bugs me as bad as the mosquito. If I kept moving I could manage by slapping my neck and shaking my hands and head to prevent a mosquito helmet and mittens from fully forming. The problem is, a transect survey calls for the counter, or mosquito magnet or mascot, to stay at a point for five minutes. The rub is punching in the three-symboled GPS mark. My hands were tied up in that task for seven seconds. Screaming is a futile defense.

As I emerge from the harsh marsh a cold front fronted as a cooling salve. The mosquitos disappeared. Dallying, toggling through symbols on the GPS, I heard an acute breeze within the whooming upstart wind.

Glancing up I saw a northern harrier coolly gliding at my head. Reacting to my head jerk, the female marsh hawk flapped once, flashed its rufous-frosted breast and peeled off. I interpreted an aspect of curiosity, or perhaps respect, in the calm dip of its dark head.

Returning back to work from the heightened sighting, I jotted my favorite survey entry to date: NOHA, flyover, 18 meters from my head!

Four points later, a trumpeter swan trundled by, a bleach breach in the collage of dark clouds and deep shadowed spruce timber. Listening to its heavy wings at work conjured images of maids snapping crisp folds in laundry sheets and taut square flags whipping atop masts above balloon sails.

Before the white boat of a bird sailed out of sight, the rainstorm returned on full blast, as if it had stored up energy or been angered during its intermission.

Slogging back listening to the various pelting pitches (upon mud, water, grass, my coat) and watching the droplets dimple or welt muddy or puddly surfaces, I found further favorable distraction in revisiting the two uncommon bird visits — considering the harrier and swan had swung by as a reward for sticking it out with the mosquitoes or to warn about the weather, or apologize for it.

The next day at the end of a drizzly pond scan, 14 rollicking ravens rolled overhead, leapfrogging, rocketing up, corkscrewing down. Their swishing wings made more sound than the single caller clucking optional commands. We hear a raven call about five days a week, but haven’t seen more than three at a time this year. Of all the birds, ravens hold the top spot in the mystical scale, so it was easy to point to the playful corvids as a portent for the three black turnstones we watched forage on the shore a half hour later, as well as the downpour that resumed its reign simultaneously.

“When it’s raining, it’s birding,” has been a serviceable catchphrase at Chickaloon lately.

My theory is that birds migrating south have extended their stay to wait out the weather and continue their trip on a sunnier day with a favorable breeze.

The remodeled plat of interim ponds has created extra suitable habitat. On a full-fledged pond complex that didn’t exist on July 15 — at which time it was a map of mud — we’ve recently counted as many as 86 green-winged teal, 54 greater yellowlegs and 112 peeps. Watching the green-winged teal plow the pond with bills submerged, the yellowlegs bathing and preening and the least- and semi-palmated sandpipers foraging on the lush creeping alkali fringe or knoll isles, I remarked that the experience reminded me of arriving at some birding hotspot to which the public would flock. To kick myself for getting the rare birding opportunities afforded to me here every day, I imagined a boardwalk, pricey scopes and friendly folk, then erased the vision. Then a young merlin, testing its attack swoop, cleared the pond of all its feathered contents except some ducks. Alarmed yellowlegs escorted the rising puff of retreating peeps.

During the final minutes of Aug. 8, we heard a lone wolf barking gruffly at its hoarse echo. I imagined the wolf might be pleading for a halt to the rain, which, just after midnight, had thickened from a patter upon the cabin roof to a drumming.

The morning of Aug. 9, we were teased with sun that spotlighted the Kenai Mountains’ detailed relief below glowing arretes. Roaming chrome clouds soon slid in and sealed a tight lid. By the afternoon, the wind had built to a feeble howl. We kept waiting for the dark sky to explode, but a drop of rain didn’t fall all day.

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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Winging It: Fleeting flights — Look fast before ID chances pass

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photos courtesy of Sean Ulman. Red-necked phalaropes dot a pond this summer.

July 24 to Aug. 1 — Inclement weather coincided with our fatigued inclinations so we took off a proper weekend. We rested, read and redesigned the remaining schedule. Believe it or not, we barely birded.

Recharged, we returned to work with relish. There was only four weeks left of the fieldwork portion of the project. The demand to collect as much data as possible has never seemed so dutiful.

Whenever the rain broke or rested we’d rush out to trap. We don’t net birds when it’s raining. Handling them in wet conditions can hinder their proper thermoregulation.

Revisiting varied habitat points to classify vegetation can be conducted rain or shine. As long as the weather isn’t unbearable (thankfully the wind hasn’t been bad) we can do our transect survey point counts or pond scans, which have seen increased shorebird use since being refilled by rainwater.

Anytime you go outside, especially in a remote marshland used by birds as a migratory stopover site, there will be birding.

On three different days, we’ve spotted three solitary sandpipers, including some close-up looks at specimens near our net. Watching them feed or bob alongside the bird they most resemble — lesser yellowlegs — it’s easy to break down the differences. The solitary sandpiper has a shorter neck and shorter, paler legs. It’s darker breast blends into pewter wings. In flight, the yellowlegs’ costume is entirely shed. The dark, horizontal tail stripe stands out during its flicking wing beats (much like a spotted sandpiper’s flight). When it calls — higher, more urgent whistles — it’s as though the bird is chastising the birder for mistaking it for a yellowlegs.

Peregrine falcon made our list from July 26 to July 29, often arrowing low over the marsh. The most striking sighting was when we watched it on a stark spruce perch picking apart fresh prey, feathers floating down one at a time like fluffy snowflakes.

A semipalmated plover pokes along the sand.

On July 31 we walked to the shore in between pond scans, arriving a half hour after high tide. After 74 mallards picked up off the mud we sat on a log and counted the other species — 41 semipalmated plovers, 24 red-necked phalaropes, 18 greater yellowlegs, eight herring gulls, six Bonaparte gulls, two mew gulls.

After studying plovers plopping down to roost in mud divots, phalaropes plying the shoreline and flopping down to swim and spin up bug bites, and juvenile Bonaparte gulls, unattended by adults, practicing with their new wings and flashing their coveted black ‘M’ marked coverts, there was still plenty of time to interpret improving weather and reflect on how lucky I am to spend so much time out here getting fertile birding under my belt.

Nearing a peak feeling of entrenchment at Chickaloon is the perfect time for a stumper to fly over and humble the seasoned or improved birder.

On July 28, four gull-like birds flew directly over us.

“What are those birds?” Sadie shouted.

The regret that she had packed up her binoculars for the double slough crossing was obvious. I responded by naming the closest shape association.

“Frigate birds?”

The heavy birds above us, similar in length and width to herring gulls, were all white underneath but had angular wings and a long tail. I lent my binoculars a couple of seconds late. We listened closely but the ghost gulls never called.

“Tropic birds?” I suggested half-seriously, aware that their southern coastal range would render such a sighting ludicrous.

Back at the cabin, Sibley guide book open, we listed possible species based on field marks and home range.

Caspian tern? Too small. Long-tailed jaeger was my official, best guess.

Sadie, familiar with that species from fieldwork in Barrow, dismissed it, convincingly citing our mystery species’ bold whiteness and thicker tail.

The daily list lacuna was booked as “unidentified gull.” Hopelessly scouring the sky the next day we were simultaneously rankled and thankful by what might have been.

The missed ID reminded me of a long-billed curlew I thought I saw last year at Big Indian Creek, which better bird minds convinced me to demote to a whimbrel. I can still clearly imagine that cinnamon chimera winging against a peach sunset, its decurved bill impossibly long — the long shot ornithological opportunity, like the unattainable tropic bird triumph, long gone before 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.

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Winging It: Birds, bears, belugas — oh my!

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Sean Ulman. Sadie Ulman scouts the Chickaloon River off Turnagain Arm for birds, but recently had sightings of beluga whales and seals.

July 17-18 — Reinforced by Kenai National Wildlife Refuge bio intern recruits, we reaped the statistical rewards of our first four-man crews — doing double-plot surveys and trapping nine birds.

We watched two short-billed dowitcher chicks — nubby-winged puffballs with lichen-camo-speckled fuzz — feeding alongside their parents.

Four marvelous black brant flew into Chickaloon and foraged and preened on the misty shore. When predicting new sightings prior to our 2010 season, I pointed out canvasback (I had seen a pair from our car at nearby Potter’s Marsh in 2009) and black brant (which can be seen in Bird Babylonia’s 2009 production, “Lady Liberty.”)

A new species neither of us thought about calling — northern shrike — was added to our project list three days later. A technician and I spotted one on Plot 2 perched on a bare spruce tree, where a week ago a brown bear was spotted hanging around with two cubs.

After scanning over paw prints and scat, which a flood tide had scattered with seaweed, we scrutinized the hook-billed predatory songbird — black mask, black wing lapel, black bobbing mimidlike tail.

July 19-20 — Camping two nights at Chickaloon River, that mighty, murky chasm carving the flats in two, we found several new wildlife species that utilize the marine river habitat.

Vole. Red fox. Coincidence? Pink salmon. Harbor seals. Hmm … .

It’s solid birding on the river plot, too. I saw seven whimbrel and six pectoral sandpipers.

Staying four nights instead of two at the river, Sadie saw a lot of birds (and beasts, too). I considered paraphrasing or passing off her sightings as my own, but it’s only right to let her tell. So I stole the following notes from her journal:

July 21 — Noticed white crests appear in a sliver of river about a kilometer away. Knowing that belugas come up the Chickaloon to feed during high tides, I was anticipating their arrival. We worked our way toward the shore, negotiating the incoming water on the slough fingers.

Watched the belugas quick, graceful surface and dive. Seeing three bright whites and four off-white/gray at one time leads me to believe there were at least double that, maybe a dozen?

Watched the whales feed for 20 minutes until they slowly made their way around the bend in the river. After doing vegetation survey and negotiating another slough, we popped up two hours later toward the inlet. It was 17:14, peak high tide and the belugas (maybe the same pod?) were cruising back out to the inlet. This time we were standing in the mud with water at our feet. The white crests eased by us unaware. They usually aren’t diving with humans 15 feet away. After standing shoreside for a while, we retired 20 meters to sit on the vegetated edge to watch this dinner theater play out.

Survey started at 19:45 at the mud. This seems to be the gathering spot of the evening — 31 black-bellied plovers, 29 semipalmated plovers, 14 Hudsonian godwits, seven red-necked phalarope, six black turnstone, 33 least sandpipers, 14 semipalmated sandpipers, eight Western sandpipers, flock of 110 peeps in distance, six Arctic terns.

A mirage hauled out on the next substantial gut mouth was a blob of harbor seals — 30 to 40? By the time I edged closer to distinguish one blob from another, the whole group was gone, returning with the outflowing water to the (Turnagain) Arm. Continue reading

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Winging It: Fine-tuned to Chickaloon

By Sean Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Back at the Chickaloon Flats, standing on Pincher Creek cabin’s porch, I see black flies swirling, dirtying the grassy vista. Nausea from the plane ride tumbles my system. A paper wasp stings the back of my head. But this unexpected rude return soon proves to be a fleeting ruse.

The adrenaline, tapped for the sting, quickly quells my queasiness. We spray and smash the nest, for it dangles above the cabin door. As a sort of apology for scientific work tuneup, we inspect the fist-sized hive’s design — honeycombed cubbies harboring pulsing, perishing larva.

I go for a walk. Half a kilometer along, the full cure sets in.

In Seward, I cramped muscles biking, hiking Mount Marathon and overthrowing hanging curveballs. Here in the field, fresh air filling my lungs, the sense of the ocean and marsh treating my nose, the twist in my lower back uncoils, my quads limber, my mind sighs, ending its muddling streak of surveilling and judging its repetitive unproductive thoughts.

I had many mysterious headaches in town. Slight temple tappings are clogging in the occipital lobe like drying cement. Regarding the culprit, I had theories: car rides, computer screens, cramped indoor air, rainy gray weather.

Now ambling under the evening sun, a warm breeze brushing my cheeks, keeping the flies off, I understand what happened. It wasn’t town throwing me so much as a lack of the Flats. After eight weeks in the field, my mind and body were fine-tuned to Chickaloon. The tang of the air, the squish of the mud, the daily routine of hiking many miles, a plain low-fat diet (oats, nuts, dried fruit). And the joys of observing a variety of avifauna in their very natural habitat.

My body had become a mud-striding machine, made for mounting mucky banks or skipping skinny slough cuts. Meanwhile, my mind had prepared for a whole summer, another seven weeks of field life. I forgot to factor in the break.

A blue dragonfly hovers over a patch of peach-tinged goosetongue. Beyond the stripes of knee-high green seaside arrow grass, large alkali grass (pink, celadon, straw), and parched stonewashed mud, a lane of crimson glasswort suggests a cranberry bog.

With joy, I consider the upgrade from pavement and carpets to the colorful vegetative floors and other lopsided trades attached to the lifestyle swap. Binoculars replacing wallet. Wood stove versus electric, book instead of digital screens. Collecting data rather than entering it. Ocean, mountains, wilderness replacing streets, sidewalks and trailer interiors.

Birds are back. Southward migrants supplement the breeders that spend the summer. We know this from the dramatic increase in least sandpipers and greater yellowlegs, two species whose numbers had dwindled to a handful a week the first half of June when shorebirds are typically nesting.

Every 100 meters flushed least sandpipers’ squeak “streeep brreeep.” A mixed flock of yellowlegs draft behind a 100-count time step of dowitchers. I follow the 20 yellowlegs as they land in a pool. Side by side, the greaters are gigantic, their breasts, flanks and wings checkered with crisper black, white and gray flecks, as opposed to the lessers’ washed-out finish and bland gray bibs. However, seeing singles, especially in shadowed lighting or from a distance, makes for difficult IDs.

So I take advantage of the influx of greaters, studying their calls — coarser and deeper than lessers — and gawky, more exaggerated, erratic foraging forays. Continue reading

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Winging It: New scenery not vacation from birding

By Shawn Ulman, for the Redoubt Reporter

Being on break from bird work and the Chickaloon Flats, we enjoyed viewing a wider variety of bird species in various places. After eight weeks in the field with one other person, returning to town was a type of vacation itself. Then we took a more typical vacation and some engaging bird variations began.

Camping in Denali, I wandered to Savage River without my binoculars. I heard four unfamiliar vocalizations, but birding by ear can hit a wall when you don’t know the calls. Eyeing a songbird silhouette I decided to try birding by foot — slowly walking up to the bird until I got within a distance where I could see field marks. This white-crowned sparrow allowed me to get within 7 feet where I could see its helmet with two white stripes and a brown breast spot. Verifying its tweezy song allowed us to confirm the most common species in the park.

Cycling 53 miles out from Eielson Visitor Center, lugging a light pack, I had lower back pains out of the gate. We started riding at 4 p.m. and made it to our campground at 2 a.m., ragged and loopy with fatigue and dignity. I’m sure our arrival would have been delayed and our condition feebler, and perhaps fractious, had we not stopped to leisurely bird and watch wolves whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Finding a dandy dandelion-yellow, black-capped passerine in a sea of green willow was like striking gold. As I lengthily glassed this bird, my first Wilson’s warbler of the season, my sizzling quadriceps cooled without me noticing. My pretzeled back relaxed slack. After a snack I was eager to saddle up and chop miles off our remaining ride. Descending passes is an ecstasy akin to flying. Soaring like, say, a gyrfalcon — a raptor said to be nesting in a pass on the gravel road. On those swift drops I didn’t think about missing the chance to pick up that life bird, or anything. For two minutes — an eternity — orange rock, gray cliffs, taiga mosaics, willow leafage (foliage fragrances) and leaky cascades (spritzing mist) zoom by; the bicycle is beneath you, but like a pinky toe, you hardly feel it. And as the grade levels out and surroundings stay longer, geologic crosscuts can be counted, birdsongs that were a blur while zooming down can be separated and categorized. And there are three miles less left to bike.

Soon enough the next climb begins. You feel every inch of the bike going up. The grinding gears, the back tire spinning for tread. The progress can be so slow you seem like you’re on a stationary bike. Birding can provide crucial motivation on these punishing ascents. Reflecting on the two life birds I added at the last rest stop — Northern wheatear and gray-cheeked thrush — was a welcomed distraction from the meddling, slow-motion pedaling. Continue reading

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