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Posts Tagged ‘long-tailed duck’

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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Saturday 3 June 2017, week 3: Buldir Island, 22:52

The most geographically isolated island in the Aleutians. The most diverse seabird colony in the northern hemisphere. The westernmost home of bald eagles. The westernmost volcano in the Aleutians. All of these extremes are descriptors of Buldir, making it my most decorated summer home. From learning of its existence in 2010 until last year, working out here had been a dream of mine.

Being so far west, Buldir’s draw for many is the potential to see vagrant birds riding western winds from Asia. In that sense, it really is a shame that I’ve deprived birders of the chance to work on Buldir last summer and this year. If asked, I’d probably consider myself a birder for about a day or two of each year. Contrary to what one would think, many people in my field don’t consider themselves birders. Fellow field technicians have referred to our seasonal cohort as “bird professionals,” meaning we study and enjoy birds but aren’t necessarily going to grab our binoculars and jump in the car if a weather system is predicted to bring an unusual mixture of species to a nearby area.

This week I did change my tune and act like a birder for the sake of our bird list and Kevin and McKenzie, who are birders. On Wednesday I volunteered to wake up early for our third beach transect, which is where we walk along the wrack line and survey down to the water and about 50m inland for songbirds. Gray-crowned rosy finches, song sparrows, pacific wrens, and lapland longspurs are the typical birds whose visual or auditory presence we note as we navigate the boulder field and tall grass inland of North Bight Beach.

As I approached our creek crossing near a small inland marsh, I spotted a shorebird standing in plain view on a log. Since shorebirds are small and rather difficult to identify because of their slight differences in appearance, I wished I had the birders along. (My ornithology lab quizzes on species ID were more than a handful of years ago.) It didn’t look like the dunlin, least sandpipers, western sandpipers, or plover species that I’d come to recognize from counting birds in California, so I was at a loss.

Knowing there was a good chance it was a vagrant, I dedicated myself to trying to note the details of its appearance. Naturally I’d not pocketed my point and shoot camera for my little half hour walk. White breast, red below the eye, black legs, reddish hue, very thin white eye ring, black on the edges of the primaries. I even voiced these observations in the hopes they’d stick with me and enhance my mental picture.

Back in camp I pulled out our Sibley Guide to Birds and Nat Geo’s Birds of North America. As I paged through the shorebirds sections, nothing stood out as being close to my description. When Kevin and McKenzie entered our main cabin, I didn’t say anything for a little while, knowing my attempt to vocalize the description would sound vague and unhelpful. Birds of East Asia didn’t seem to have the right fit, and I was starting to give up hope that I’d find a close match. By this point I’d shared my birding news and given a few details, but nothing came to mind to the birders.

“Check out Rare Birds of North America. It has pretty good pictures,” suggested McKenzie.

Bingo. Upon searching through its shorebird section, I came across the little stint. Out of all the pictures I’d looked at, it seemed like the closest fit. Unfortunately the book also said “On w. and cen. Aleutians and Bering Sea islands, rare or very rare in fall, exceptional in spring.” Had I managed to notice and identify an exceptional sighting? It seemed unlikely to me.

Having piqued the interest of Kevin and McKenzie, I walked them to the area where I’d seen the mystery bird. Somehow I was the first to spot it on logs in that same marshy area, and Kevin took multiple shots of it with his DSLR camera. As we looked at it, McKenzie made comments that seemed to agree with my educated guess of little stint. Knowing that the birders couldn’t ID it at first glance made me feel better.

That evening we opened all the bird guides to compare Kevin’s photos to various sketches. Before the evening was through, we all agreed that a little stint had decided to visit us that day. Little stint are quite the world travelers; they breed on tundra from Scandinavia across Eurasia to northeast Russia and then winter in sub-Saharan Africa, tropical India, and southeast Asia. A visit to Buldir wasn’t out of the question, either, as sightings were reported by FWS techs in 1998, 2006, 2008, and 2009.

Being able to add a little stint to our rare bird list was exciting, but that wasn’t the bird of the week for me. On Tuesday McKenzie had radioed me to let me know there was a long-tailed duck hanging out with some harlequin ducks off Crested Point. Long-tailed ducks are my favorite!! Not only are they adorable, but their call is also cute and the one bird sound I’m happy to mimic. Sadly I did not see my duck when I searched the area that day.

However, I did see it on Thursday, and thoughts of long-tailed duck cuteness distracted me so much that I nearly fell over as I continued my walk down our treacherous boulder beach. Birds are pretty okay!

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