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.