Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reluctant birding

Published in the July/August 2013 issue of Alaska magazine

It is nearly midnight, and still light. The mountaintops are bathed in alpine glow; the trees below stained gold by the setting sun. On nights like this, no matter how tired I am, it's hard to close the door and go to sleep. Outside, hummingbirds zip back and forth to the sugar-water we hang out for them. A bald eagle waits in a spruce above the lagoon, watching with sharp eyes for the shadow of a fish below. The single, scratchy jazz note of a thrush reverberates from a stand of alders.

I've never been much of a birder. Birds are beautiful and diverse and it's cool that they can fly and all, but birds as symbols of wildness have always seemed to me inferior to bears and moose and other big, sexy mammals. Somehow, the fact that an incredible array of birds manage to adapt and survive in smog-clogged cities and suburban monocultures the world over has never really impressed me. Instead, it made the birds seem somewhat mundane and commonplace. I've always respected the passion and knowledge of avid birders, but I've never longed to join their ranks.

Until now. Beyond my doorstep stretches hundreds of thousands of acres of trees, a vast northern rainforest that hides blue glacier bears and black wolves and their mysterious, shadowy kin. As the cool night descends, I look out across the treetops and imagine the animals below, breathing the damp air, padding over thick moss, their breath caught in clouds. The lodge where I'm spending the summer is a tiny dot in an oversized landscape of fjords and bays, a place where mountain goats clamber over lichen-covered rocks, moose amble through stands of spruce, and the lip of the ocean curls back to reveal a garden of anemones, sea stars and nudibranchs.

But in the midst of this natural extravaganza, I'm surprised to find it's the birds I've come to love most. The other animals appear only in rare, brilliant flashes. You know they are there, but most of the time, they remain unseen. The birds of Kachemak Bay are constantly present, bringing bursts of song and color, ushering in the season; comical or majestic or simply beautiful in their way. Each week, a new bird species appears for me to learn, and the process is exhilarating. Anyone can spot a moose, but learning to identify birds by sight and sound is a more intricate, delicate art. If big mammals are checkers, birding is chess.

Last week I saw my first-ever kinglet, a tiny bird of the north that has developed incredible adaptations to allow them to survive bitterly cold winters without migrating south as most birds their size do. Weighing about the same as a nickel and no bigger than my thumb, kinglets overwinter in boreal forests that drop as low as -40 F by fluffing up their thick feathers, sleeping in tree cavities and shivering themselves warm. Here, they flicker through the forest like glimpses of a dream, conjuring images of conifers blanketed in snow, northern lights dancing overhead.

There are the pine siskins, little brown and white songbirds that chase each other in swoops around the bird feeder, and the chestnut-sided chickadee, another tiny bird that winters in the far north, living on the knife edge of starvation and survival. Each morning, whether it's snowing or raining or the sun is shining, I walk along a boardwalk from my cabin to the kitchen and am greeted by chickadees and pine siskins darting through the branches.

Thus begins my day among the birds. As I sip my first cup of coffee, I stand at the kitchen window and watch Stellar's jays hop comically along the deck railing, quibbling amongst themselves. Their feathers splay out in a geometric blue-black pattern, topped by a finely-serrated mohawk and two electric blue eyebrows. Like many members of the family corvidea, they are full of spunk and smart as a whip, ready to snatch the food right off your plate. And like all flocks of birds, a group of jays has a name: a party of jays. Our party presides over the lodge in small gangs.

A party of jays, and a conspiracy of ravens: another bird in the family corvidae. Ravens are among the smartest of birds, as well as the most widespread and steeped in lore. They figure prominently in native folklore and totemic symbols: raven, the trickster, the shapeshifter, the one who stole fire and created earth from a watery prehistoric world. In the city, working together to tip a trashcan or walking, one foot in front of the other like a hunched Hollywood detective in a black raincoat, the raven seems crafty, mischievous. In deep forests, ravens grow more ominous, their croaked voices echoing through fog, coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once, their heavy wingbeat stirring the stillness of moist, mist-shrouded air.

A conspiracy of ravens – and a charm of hummingbirds. We have a charm of rufous hummingbirds that buzz overhead like fighter pilots practicing a fly-over. Like many birds, the female is drab, while the male gleams with a shot of iridescent red on his throat. From sunup at 5 a.m. to sundown at midnight, they zip back and forth from the hummingbird feeders to the tips of alder and spruce branches, driven mad, it seems, by the lingering light.

In the evenings, I walk around a small peninsula of old-growth Sitka spruce. The path is a tunnel through thick sphagnum moss, winding among decaying logs and trees draped with lichen. It's another world in there. Sounds are muffled by the carpet of moss and the ceiling of intertwined branches overhead. My path leads to a bald eagle nest, a balcony of branches set high on a bluff above the ocean. If the paired eagles see me approaching, they swoop angrily from their nest, demanding my retreat. I imagine them sleeping there on cold nights, curled together around their eggs, their hooked talons and beaks buried in each others' feathers. If both eggs hatch, the larger eaglet will kill its sibling while the parents watch nonchalantly, and the eaglet's dead body will be tossed from the nest. Six weeks later, when the surviving eaglet is ready to fly, the irony of the situation is revealed: more than 40 percent of eaglets do not survive their first flight. If one does, the learning curve is steep. It shares its parents' size, but not their agility. While the adult eagles look on, dignified, the mottled eaglet careens through the sky like a teenager learning to drive.

As summer spreads to this northern peninsula, my list of birds increases. I see sandhill cranes passing by on their way north, bodies heavy as they propel themselves further toward the terminus of their migratory route. Warblers flash overhead like a splash of yellow paint on the blue canvas of sky. Sharp- shinned hawks release a battle cry as they swoop to attack prey. And the water birds – puffins perched on rocky islands, flocks of murres like miniature penguins flapping over the water, black cormorants still as a statue. Harlequin ducks, looking ready to attend a ball with their fine black, white and brown suits. Guillemots and kittiwakes bobbing in the swell like toy ducks. Each bird with a personality of its own, a niche carved out in this landscape of sea and forest, a name, a call, a season. Even as other wildlife retreats farther and farther from human development, the birds hang on, large and small, the last vestiges of wildness to remind us of what it is we stand to lose.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. And I love that picture of the hummingbird! Gorgeous!


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