Published Aug. 18, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Generosity of other birders improves travel experience.”
2014 Update: If you didn’t make it to Alaska this summer, start planning for next year. Go to http://www.eBird.org to research bird checklists, hotspots and recent sightings at your travel destination.
By Barb Gorges
Mark and I have yet to hire a birding guide or join an organized bird trip in our travels, but someday we may have to if we travel somewhere with unfamiliar birds.
Meanwhile, we find birding hotspots by using www.eBird.org. But then there is also the generosity of local birders.
Mid-July, Mark and I were walking the trails at the Sitka National Historical Park in Sitka, Alaska, overwhelmed by the sounds of small birds high in the rainforest canopy. We knew the singing was thrushes, but even though we’d gone online the night before to listen to the three possibilities, varied (definitely different), hermit and Swainson’s, our audio memory wasn’t very good.
This was supposed to be a vacation so I was trying to just let it go. I can’t reliably sort out Swainson’s and hermits by sight in my own backyard during migration, where they never sing, much less these invisible birds.
But enter Lucy. When you are wearing binoculars, it is not considered rude to walk up to a total stranger also wearing binoculars and ask “What are you seeing?”
Some birders, I have heard, are curmudgeons, but not this woman. We chatted more than 5 minutes before she invited us to come with her to an opening in the bushes along the shore where she’d seen four species of gulls the day before.
Lucy also explained an easy way to identify the singing thrushes: the Swainson’s fluting song spirals up and the hermit’s makes a little rise before spiraling down.
We were surprised any birds were still singing in mid-July, still advertising for mates and establishing territories. I later read that the Alaska Natives call the thrushes “salmonberry birds” because they sing at the time of year salmonberries are ripe.
They are right about that. Sitka’s brambles were full of these raspberry-type berries, either a deep gold or a deep red when ripe. Mark’s brother, Peter, who lives in Sitka, pointed them out. They are kind of seedy so the best way to eat them is to pop one in your mouth, smash it with your tongue to get the juice and then swallow it whole. It was hard to concentrate on birding with so many berries to pick. Luckily, no bears were competing with us.
Lucy still had to get to work that morning so we bid adieu.
The next day we stopped by the Fishermen’s Eye Gallery where she works and gave her an update on the birds we’d seen, including nine young bald eagles checking out the first returning salmon of the season and glaucous-winged, mew and Bonaparte’s gulls.
We were very lucky to meet Lucy, a local, who has led bird tours in the past.
In Juneau, it was a fellow traveler who alerted us to birds. We took the tram up Mount Roberts, hoping to see ptarmigan on the trail at the top. Instead, we got an unsolicited heads-up on a family of sooty grouse (formerly spruce grouse) from a man wearing all black—and binoculars.
At Mendenhall Glacier, we struck up a conversation with another man with binoculars. He said we should talk to his buddy, a “real birder,” an energetic, white-haired man who spent half our conversation promoting birding his own neighborhood and encouraged us to call him if we ever travel to Point Reyes National Seashore in California.
We watched for seabirds from the Alaska Marine Highway—the ferry—from Sitka to Skagway and all the way back to Bellingham, Wash., and from all our stops in between, but had better luck identifying whales. The fast-winging black dots remained inscrutable. They might be worth a guided trip.
One of the crew members did point out the flock of pink, plastic flamingos perched in a tree on Highwater Island, near Sitka.
These migrate from China, he said, by way of the U.S. Coast Guard’s training center.