Archive for June 4th, 2018

Friday 1 June 2018, 9:01. Aboard R/V Tiglax at sea: N 53º 52.1916 E 177º 48.2466

After pointing out and identifying another species of bird nesting on Alaska’s North Slope, my first field boss Matt said, “Steph, people pay thousands of dollars to see these birds.”

My response? “Oh.” It’s not that I wasn’t excited to be seeing the birds that inhabit a remote landscape; it’s just that birds weren’t necessarily what got me out of my sleeping bag each morning.

There I was, the summer after my sophomore year of college, finally working my first field season in remote Alaska. Having had no prior fieldwork experience, I’d known landing a summer job in wildlife biology would be difficult. Fortunately I’d been active in UAF’s student chapter of The Wildlife Society, and my friend (also the president) had given me the best advice. “Apply to everything. It doesn’t matter if you’re qualified or not. Just apply,” he’d repeated.

When I saw a position working for a graduate student studying spectacled eider on Alaska’s North Slope, I barely knew what an eider was. Having not yet taken ornithology, I sure didn’t know my birds. The experience sounded amazing, though. The opportunity involved living in a tent-based camp of 4-6 people on the Colville River Delta for ~ 6 weeks.

The site would have a bear-deterring electric fence around a communal Weatherport (used for cooking and lounging), along with 8 foot x 8 foot “Bombshelter” tents for each of us. An outhouse, a Conex trailer – the containers found on cargo ships – for food storage, and a shower shed could be found apart from the enclosed area.

The position described spending time mist netting over ponds for spectacled eider, boating to islands around the delta to search for spec eider nests by hiking around every pond, and assisting with the capture of spectacled eider and red-throated loons for satellite transmitter attachment. It was only when I interviewed for the job that Matt revealed the biggest highlight. For the first week and a half of the season, he’d take one field technician to the village of Atqasuk, from which a small helicopter-enabled outfit would set out to camp near lakes that looked promising for the presence of spectacled eider. He was planning on having me go along for that stint. A helicopter for my first field job?! Are you kidding me?

Even though funding was still slightly up in the air, I was completely sold on the project. I even turned down a guaranteed job working at the Fairbanks Public Lands Information Center – FAPLIC, a National Park Service-run information center about parks and refuges around Alaska – in the hopes that the funding would come through.

Fortunately God had my back, and everything worked out. Because of my walking stick and love of Lord of the Rings, I was nicknamed Bilbo and proceeded to love field life as much as I’d anticipated.

And that was pretty much that. Once I’d proven my mettle in one field season, the following jobs were easier to come by. Birds just kind of happened to me. There are so many more positions working with birds than mammals that the experiences have stacked up over the years. Although I’m still not a birder, I can’t deny that birds have found their way into my heart.

So without further ado, I present my 5 favorite birds – as of May 2018.

1. Long-tailed duck: I first encountered these on the North Slope and was struck by their coloration. They’re beautiful, but I typically describe them as just plain cute. Their calls are also adorable, a sound I typically mimic as ow-owuua.

2. Kiwi (North Island brown, to be specific): No reason necessary. I got to live in my favorite place and work with a unique bird that most people never even see. How many people can say they have a scar from an endangered species?

3. Spectacled eider: Quite simply, they’re the bird that started it all. Their markings are also quite striking.

4. Bar-tailed godwit: These birds embark on one of the most amazing migrations. It’s amazing not only because of the distance, but because of the start and end points: Alaska and New Zealand. No fair.

5. Gentoo penguin: The band of white speckling behind the eyes and over the top of the head is striking, as are the orange bill and feet. I’d even go so far as to call their markings sexy. The fluffy, teddy bear appearance of gentoo chicks is so strong that the urge to cuddle is hard to resist.

Every list needs a bonus member, and New Zealand’s morepork wins the slot for my favorite birds. Morepork are small owls whose presence I had the good fortune of enjoying when doing nightwork in New Zealand. To check on the development of kiwi eggs, we had to sit in the native bush during the night to wait for the kiwi to leave their nests. During our walks into the gullies and while sitting, we were treated to the voice of the little owl breaking through the quiet to say, “Morepork.”


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