13 Jun Coastal Birding: A Practice in Patience
Peering through my spotting scope, I scan the dense wall of sitka spruce that grow on the rocky shores across from me. My fingers and cheeks, whipped by unrelenting winds, have turned pink and gone numb, and I’m struggling to make the small movements needed to sight the white pinprick I know is nestled in the green. Birding is first and foremost a practice in patience and meditation. As I perch on a rock on the eastern shore of Dyea Outer Bay, I’m reminded that the natural world does not submit to my concept of time and less so to my impatience. The bald eagle I cannot find—but that is already observing me—does not care that I’m 30 minutes overdue for the lunch in my pack. Suddenly, I catch a prick of white in my scope and focus in on the yellow beak and stern face. While it’s the fourth time I’ve seen this nesting bald eagle, I’m giddy with excitement every time I find her. It’s like seeing an old friend.
Southeast Alaska is the summer breeding and rearing grounds for hundreds of species of shorebirds, seabirds, and waterfowl. Spring, then, is one of the most ecologically exciting times in the park as we welcome millions of migratory birds making their arrival from their wintering grounds in British Colombia, the Lower 48, and Central and South America. I arrived at Klondike National Park as spring migration began to wane, but just in time to see wandering tattlers, northern shovelers, and surf and white-winged scoters linger before they leave for their spring breeding grounds further north.
I’m now leading our coastal waterbird surveys with the help of two sharp-eyed birding volunteers, collecting individual counts of the resident and migratory birds that have become familiar inhabitants of Skagway’s waters and rocky shores. Later, I’ll be analyzing the data I’ve collected to compare this year’s species counts with five years of previous survey data. I’ll also be working with the park’s Tlingit cultural interpreter to integrate indigenous use of survey species into a discussion of the importance of conserving Klondike’s avifauna.