Alaska without birds


Unbirded-Alaska-wWe have Sabine Gulls and Arctic Terns, more Sabine Gulls and more Arctic Terns. We travel up the Ningikfak River in Alaska in an 18-foot speedboat, 120 Yamaha horsepower pushing us at breakneck speed.

We just left Hooper Bay, an indentation in the Bering Sea west of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, one of the two largest wildlife refuges in the United States. (The Arctic is the other.)

It is the last week of June 2007. We are part of a small group of bird watchers and ecotourism practitioners who have traveled from the Lower 48 to assess birding potential. Receiving this invitation was like being asked to go to a four-star restaurant to see if there was anything good to eat.

We can only see the birds from the air, because the muddy banks of the rivers are too high to look at. It’s just seagulls and terns, seagulls and terns. But the seagulls are almost all Sabine’s, dapper in black, gray and white, more Sabine’s seagulls than any of us have seen before.

We come to a bend in the river. Ulric Ulroan, our guide and pilot, tilts the boat sharply to the left and we cling to the gunwales. Our roaring boat is obviously an unexpected intrusion for the Pacific Loon minding its own business just beyond the bend of the river. The bird comes out of the water like loons do: slowly, with effort, reaching the speed of air as we draw with it. We have a loon in full breeding plumage five feet from the water, almost within reach. This is called a look at life. Later in the trip, the Common Loons will offer the same courtesy.

The Yukon Delta covers over 21 million acres, larger than the state of South Carolina. Filled with abundant wildlife and vast unspoiled landscapes, but roadless and accessible only by air – and only by a few – it’s mostly pristine territory for bird watching, tundra, ponds and rivers bordered by mountains. We are here visitors to the wet tundra of the plains.

Pristine birdwatching territory

Birdwatchers are just beginning to discover the treeless, low-level marshes of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The sanctuary is known for its abundance of fish and other wildlife, including moose, caribou, and black and grizzly bears, but it’s also a prime waterfowl area, home to over 750,000 swans and geese, 2 million ducks and 100 million shorebirds and other waterfowl. .

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is the seasonal home to all minima subspecies of the Husky Goose, nearly all of the world’s Emperor Geese, approximately 80 percent of the Brant Goose subspecies nigricans (“Black Goose”). ”) and tens of thousands of Great White Geese. – White-fronted geese. Nearly 75 percent of the Alaskan population of sandhill cranes (canadensis, or “Little”) also breeds in the delta.

Yukon Delta Northwest Territory
Box 346
Bethel, AK 99559
(907) 543-3151

Ulric is an exceptional guy: a keen birdwatcher, mayor of his Eskimo village Yup’ik at 30 and 6’5″, the go-to man for his village’s basketball team. He takes us to his birding camp, close to the subsistence fishing camps along the river. June is salmon and bird watching season.

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Settled in our tents while he, his uncle Mark and his son Aaron take care of the fire and the food, we can look around us.

The delta is flat, very flat. And birdy, very birdy. Birds can be seen in all directions: Dunlin, Black Turnstone, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Same-aged Gulls and Terns, Emperor Geese, Long-tailed Skua, Band-tailed Godwit. We stand and slowly sweep 360 degrees. Scheduling issues brought us here a couple of weeks later than planned, so we’re watching the taillights of breeding season.
We would miss the deafening herds of emperors and all but two male spectacled eiders, an endangered species. (We stick to breeding females.)

We find Willow Ptarmigan and Western Sandpiper nesting, the ptarmigan clinging tightly to its nest, hard to see when it is at your feet. Glaucous Gulls, white nuptials in the blue sky, float. Parasitic Jaegers, neighborhood tyrants, rumble. Ashen Tailors sit on the driftwood stumps that the high waters dumped on our lawn. In three days we never travel more than a quarter mile from camp, yet we see all the birds we can manage.

When the journey began, with a 400 mile flight from Anchorage, our first stop was the town of Bethel. It may be the commercial, administrative and transportation center of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, a place where 6,000 people live, but there are birds: Jaegers patrol the streets like cops. Grey-cheeked thrushes have broken up the city, one thrush per block. Red-necked Phalaropes, mostly juveniles, decorate the ponds that seem to be in everyone’s backyard. Yellow Warbler, Water Warbler and Rusty Blackbird share willow groves with pools of water along their roots.

Wilson’s snipe appears in flight every quarter mile. The Eastern Yellow Wagtail, with its stooping and tucking flight style, inhabits the wooded edge of the city’s sewage pond. And a surprising number of bird feeders hang around town, visited by redpolls (both flavors), black-eyed juncos, and even pine grosbeaks.

In Bethel, we contacted John McDonald, an experienced outfitter who takes birdwatchers for long walks on the river on weekends in June. We piled on board for the adventure on the Gweek River, whose name alone is worth the trip, and traveled about 40 miles upstream, stopping at different habitats in which more than 50 species of birds can be observed. (Moose and beaver are additional treats.)

Besides the birds already discovered in town, we encountered many ducks (American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Common Goldeneye), Rough-legged Buzzard and Goshawk. A Hudsonian Godwit nesting hotspot can also be found here, but again our late June timing was poor.

Bethel’s Six Best Hotspots

1. Hangar Lake, on the east side of town. Many red-necked grebes and Pacific loons.

2. Harbor for small craft. Good for seagulls and terns. Wilson’s Snipe and Red-necked Phalarope are easy to find in wetlands across from parking lots.

3. Tundra Trail off BIA Road. Pacific Golden Plover, Least and Western Sandpipers, Long-tailed Skuas, Warblers and Sparrows.

4. Mission Lake, behind Moravian Church Pond. Greater Scaup, Red-necked Phalarope and Horned Grebes.

5. Municipal landfill and sewage pond. Beginners and phalaropes in the spring and up to five species of gulls. The Eastern Yellow Wagtail can be found in thickets near the lagoon.

6. Kuskokwim and Gweek rivers. American Wigeon, Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Common Goldeneye, Rough-legged Buzzard and Tree Swallow, Bank and Cliff Swallows, and most birds seen at Bethel. Northern Goshawk, Hudsonian Godwit and Northern Shrike are often encountered. Kuskokwim Wilderness Adventures organizes river birding tours in cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in May and June. The boats leave the port at 6 a.m. and return at 3 p.m. Lunch is provided. Reservations required.

Kuskokwim Nature Adventures
PO Box 1225
Bethel, AK 99559
(907) 543-3900

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From Bethel we traveled 135 miles northwest to the village of Chevak d’Ulric. Audrey, our young pilot, her thick brown hair once braided and pulled over the back of a baseball cap, learned that we were birdwatchers and flew us over the landscape at 500 feet. The nesting tundra swans appeared like white buttons on the green and blue weave below us.

We ate fresh chum salmon at Ulric’s camp, then king salmon at his house before flying back, this time 90 miles northeast to the village of St. Mary’s. There we were to patrol the gravel road connecting this town to Mountain Village, 18 miles to the west. The Bristle-legged Curlew nests in the area, particularly in the area between the ideally placed mileposts seven and nine. The birds were out of the nests, but out of sight, out of touch, neither seen nor heard.

Bristle-thighed curlew, path.

Birdwatchers exploring the route between the towns of St. Mary’s and Mountain Village in early June may find Bristle-legged Curlews and can expect Willow Ptarmigan, Pacific Golden Plover, Whimbrel, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Long-tailed Plover (common) and Parasitic Skuas (uncommon), Savannah Sparrow, Lapland Sparrow and two Redpolls.

Songbirds that prefer areas with clusters of willows include Alder Flycatcher, Arctic Warbler (uncommon), Grey-cheeked Thrush, American Robin, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow Warbler and Wilson’s Warbler, Water Warbler, as well as American Warbler, Fox and White Warbler. -the crowned sparrows.

Accommodation and vehicles:
Mattie and Gail Beans
Andreafsky River Bed and Breakfast
(907) 438-2965

We spoke with a helicopter pilot, working with a banding team, who had held a curlew chick the day before. “It’s only a 20 mile walk north,” he told us. In the tundra, the texture of marshmallows is more than a long, long way.

Our search revealed black-bellied American golden plovers, nesting lesser sandpipers, more willow ptarmigans, more troll skuas, and our lone bear, a heavy lifting grizzly bear. From 400 meters away he sniffed us once and found us unattractive.

Only in winter

This is definitely a pre-planned trip. It is not difficult to find accommodation in Bethel, but in Chevak you count on the hospitality of its residents. Ulric took care of it for us. St. Mary’s had an apartment available for short-term rental. Rental vehicles are a bit like Silk-thighed Curlews: hard to find.

The birding everywhere throughout the trip was outstanding and the bird photography opportunities were 10x. Our Arctic bird sightings were simply breathtaking, the surroundings amazing.

Oh, and that mud.

It borders the rivers. It is found under the ponds. It’s smooth. It is slippery. You better be careful.

Jim Williams writes a birding column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper. He is a former associate editor of Birding magazine. Paul J. Baicich is co-author with the late Colin JO Harrison of A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (2nd ed., Princeton University Press, 2005).