Confessions of a Casual Birder

Alaska’s wild side is home to a distinctive assortment of birds.

By Ken Marsh

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  

—William Shakespeare

The surf charges in with a drumroll that crescendos, peaks, then breaks in a carbonated hiss. It’s late afternoon and, wrapped in waders and raingear, I’ve left the shelter of a rented shack and stepped onto the sand dunes of an isolated Alaska Gulf Coast beach. The idea is to hike inland across the dunes, against a steady rain, and into the wetlands beyond to explore and witness a rare natural wonder. 

Overhead, the skies swarm and clamor with northbound birds. Huge flocks move across a wilderness tapestry far from roads, electricity or Internet. This passage – of shorebirds and waterfowl by the millions – is what I’ve come to see. They storm the region late each April and May in a mass migration witnessed by relatively few, the sights and sounds a sensation worthy of any wildlife viewer’s bucket list. 

Indeed, a desire to see wild creatures living as they have since the last ice age draws viewers to Alaska from all corners of the world. The state’s ranges, coasts and forests are famous for unique collections of birds and animals ranging from two-pound willow ptarmigan to two-ton Pacific walrus along with caribou, brown bear and so much more. Of course, the adventure is in the searching and the finding, the becoming a part of the place, its mountain backdrops and tundra plains, to find iconic musk ox, Dall sheep, moose – and even little birds as they pass in hordes across untamed skies.

A flock of dowitchers feeds in a Southcentral Alaska estuary. ©Ken Marsh

Wet, wild and lonesome, the Gulf Coast is a country of ocean squalls and glacier-hung mountains, a place where the winds sometimes howl for weeks without pause. Yet breaks in the weather occur, and when they do, this little known, largely uninhabited stretch of shoreline spanning some 200 miles between Cordova and Yakutat reveals itself as a world of contrasts. On days when sunshine floods land and sea, the hemlocks dry out and the hills glow in an enchanted light. Harebells and salmonberries bloom purple and hot pink, and creatures—some large and lanky as 1,000-pound moose; others tiny and delicate as rufous hummingbirds, lighter than a nickel—appear in the marshes, thickets and along beach edges. 

The rivers and streams here (there are many) serve as avenues for salmon: awesome runs of sockeye, Chinook and coho. And one particular river—the great, glacial Copper—has over the eons cut a deep, wide valley that each spring provides passage into Alaska’s Interior for a multitude of migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors.  

At the moment, I’m east of the Copper on a late-April day, dropped off by a bush plane chartered from Cordova, near a delta where two smaller rivers merge. The birds are here, as expected, resting in the marshes and flooding the skies en route to that ancient gateway to Arctic nesting grounds. Not far from my shack, a shelter for commercial fishermen who appear for a few weeks each August to net late-summer coho, the dunes bordering the open coast end abruptly at a shallow, brackish, mile-long lake backed by an expansive bog. The lake seems crossable, so I wade in and start sloshing my way across.

A Bushplane takes off from a remote Prince William Sound beach. ©Ken Marsh

Shorebirds sail by in unimaginable numbers; some 5 to 7 million of them will pass through before all is said and done, many just in from faraway places such as Mexico, Central America and South America. Western sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers and dunlins whistle around me in whirling flocks, twisting and turning in single-minded masses. Sandhill cranes meander overhead, circling and gliding, their croaking, cracking calls distinctive as the spring season itself. Tundra swans honk, and geese of all kinds cry out as they pass overhead in broad, northbound wedges. 

At the bog, an organic brew of tannic water and decomposing plants, the air smells like rotten eggs. My pace slows to a tentative, mud-bottomed slog, and I’m startled as waves of pintails, wigeons, shovelers and teal in flocks of hundreds burst suddenly from the sedges. 

Freshly arrived spring migrants rest on the ice of a Southcentral Alaska pond. ©Ken Marsh

A confession: I am a casual birder. While serious colleagues enjoy keeping life lists or collecting and recording sightings—endeavors that are interesting and potentially helpful to the overall study of birds—my approach is less structured, though no less passionate. Instead of recording lists or tallies, I like to view birds as living art forms, natural elements that fill critical niches in a broad, breathing canvas. I watch them, savoring their distinctive colors, movements and songs, then move on to the next piece of the canvas. 

In that sense I’m less a birder, perhaps, than a student of nature in its entirety. And that’s fine. There are as many ways and reasons to view birds and wildlife as there are people interested in doing so. Even better, there are no hard, fast rules that apply to how nature is interpreted or enjoyed.

An hour later I’m beyond the bog, walking in a driven drizzle among tussocks and grass to my armpits. Steller’s jays with cobalt tails melding like winter nights into black, crested heads, scream in the brush at the bog’s edge. Nearby, on the far side of a thicket, a river whispers. 

A Steller’s jay pauses on a dark spring day. ©Ken Marsh

The wide-open bog vanishes in a tangled, twisted forest of alders 10 feet tall and for a moment I sense a twinge of hopelessness. Engulfed in alders, I follow the sound of the current, tripping over trunks, cursing, then pushing on. And suddenly, the river appears. At its edge, bear tracks stamped into the mud meander upstream toward a forested valley. The gentle current simmers in the rain and it occurs to me the dripping jungle around me is alive with peeping songbirds: juncos, sparrows, kinglets, and so many nondescript little brown warblers and whistlers that I can’t keep track of them all. I’m tempted to just sit there, watching, thinking and resting. But it’s getting late, and I must turn back. 

Four days after my arrival, I’m standing at the shack’s window, sipping hot cocoa, examining my reflection. The sun has broken out, and the clouds have lifted, revealing beyond the marsh a massive glacier framed by the jagged Coastal Range. Flocks of birds continue to whirl outside, as well as in my head, where images of this trip will remain, I suppose, forever. 

Suddenly, a dash of iridescent emerald appears on glittering wings, hovering at collar level beyond the reflected image of my red chamois shirt. I hear my plane coming. The hummingbird vanishes. 

GOING WILD

To experience the spring shorebird and waterfowl migration in and around the Copper River delta—to hit it just right—is to witness an aerial stampede. Seeing so many birds, and so many varieties, can be remarkable, even life changing. Better, it’s only one example of Alaska’s many unique wildlife-viewing opportunities.

In the way that a locale and its inhabitants can set a place apart, Alaska is distinctive for its animals and birds—from giant brown bears of Pleistocene dimensions to diminutive boreal chickadees—and for its backdrops of mountains, rivers, forests and tundra so deep and broad that the land seems to roll on forever. In fact, with 586,412 square miles of land mass (that’s more than a million acres or 1,600 square miles for every day of the year) the state is unfathomably huge, spanning an assortment of climate zones, geographies and ecosystems, each featuring its own distinctive collection of birds and animals.

Such variety in a seemingly endless wilderness can be intimidating to prospective wildlife viewers. But it needn’t be prohibitive. Simply focus on the bird or animal species you wish to see, and then determine through a bit of research just when and where in the state you’ll need to go find them. From there it’s a matter of sorting through logistics, including travel, food, and accommodations; aligning costs to suit your budget; and considering how much time you have to spend.

Going wild—striking out on your own or in a small group to search for wildlife in far-flung places—is one option. Dream venues await in every corner of the state: Consider Round Island in Southwest Alaska, where Pacific walrus may be seen hauling out on the beach by the thousands (for an instant preview, see them live via Web cam at explore.org/walrus); or Southeast’s Anan Creek in July and August when black bears and brown bears mingle to fish for pink salmon; the Arctic out of Nome, where you might rent a car to tour the road system and search for musk oxen or maybe connect with a local birding tour to find rare and colorful bluethroats and Arctic warblers. 

A sandhill crane feeds in a Southcentral Alaska wetland. ©Ken Marsh

Access to the more exotic places usually means taking a commercial jet from Juneau, Anchorage or Fairbanks to a hub city such as Petersburg, Wrangell, Cordova, Dillingham, or Kotzebue, among others. From there, passage into the wilderness might require a Bush plane or a boat charter off the coast or up a remote river. Do-it-yourself trips are possible and can ease expenses, but treks far from civilization require meticulous planning, and wilderness camping is not for the inexperienced. The cost of a guided tour is usually money well spent—these may include extended hikes or river floats through storied places such as the Brooks Range or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where seasoned professionals handle logistics and safety.

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Birding Festivals

Birding is a year-round pastime for many in Alaska, with viewing in many regions generally best from April through September. A listing of local festivals celebrating the arrival and gatherings of birds can be found at http://ak.audubon.org/2015-bird-festivals-alaska.

A sampling of birding festivals includes: 

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