Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Best Part of Bethel is Leaving (5/2/11 - 5/8/11)

Upon my arrival to gate C4 for flight A45 to Bethel, Alaska, I received my first glimpse into the ninth largest city in Alaska -- a glimpse far more revealing than my a priori wikipedia jaunts of the city's demographics and history.  Whereas my fellow Delta passengers of St. Paul and Grand Rapids had been a languid, alienated mass, the patrons of my final commercial flight were a tight-knit group of twenty individuals, all up-to-date on who was birthing who and the employment status of everyone and their down-and-out brother.  Lower 48 notions of standard gifts like flowers or chocolate for a long-awaited loved one had been displaced by colossal paper bags bearing infamous golden arches at the request of sick friends and hungry children.
Denali National Park (Anchorage, AK)

After a pleasant chat with an anthropologist working on a project to document subsistence harvest of at-risk species by Alaskan natives, and, more notably, a missed opportunity for a final beer before two months of "damp town" jurisdiction, I had arrived!

Bethel, AK

Conversations with veterans of bush Alaska and personal observations lead me to the following initial impression of Bethel:

In many ways, this small town of 6,000 reminds me of several hole-in-the-walls one might encounter in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan -- places like Chatham that hold special places in my memory.  Largely undisturbed tracts of wilderness surround both, standard housing is much more primitive than in suburbia (an especially beautiful dimension of native housing here is the hand-made, clay wood burners which I failed to photograph), alcoholism is prevelant, attitude towards nature is shaped by survival rather than aesthetics, a single grocery store seems to have a monopoly over the area, and outsiders stick out like sore thumbs.
Despite subsistence hunting and ubiquitous pollution within Bethel, the bird activity was pretty impressive.  In my first few days, I had already added Mew Gull, Greater White-fronted Goose, and Hoary Redpoll to my life list simply by walking around the parking lot of the Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse!  Unfamiliar birds like Glaucous Gull, Red-necked Phalarope, Varied Thrush and Pine Grosbeak littered the skies and streets, soon becoming blasé (not really) fixtures of the landscape.

Mew Gull

Greater White-fronted Geese

One of the most intriguing dimensions of Bethel's avifauna were the redpolls.  Seemingly more common than starlings in downtown Jackson, they offered a great chance to work on Hoary/Common identification...or so I thought.  I had been warned by some of the biologists that separating the two in this area was a real challenge.  Sure enough, I spent most of my time dumbfounded over a "really pale-looking male with a bill much too large" or a "female with a lot of heavy streaking on the flanks, but clear undertail coverts, a small bill, and clear rump".  I later learned that these very phenotypic characteristics were observed in the hybrid progeny of HoaryxCommon matings by one of the biologists during a study a couple of years back.  As it turns out, there are documented cases of hybridization in Alaska, leaving many Alaskans skeptical that the two redpolls are actually separate species.  After brief study of these birds in an area where the two distinct species are supposed to be sympatric (not to mention the plethora of genetic studies that found no significant differences between these taxa), I must confess that I am tending towards this camp.

As a speciation nut, the 'redpoll complex' became increasingly interesting to me.  Rather than carry on for an unwarranted amount of time on this topic here, I'll save the bulk of my ramblings for another post.  However, I will share these:

These recordings I made constitute the two major flight calls I noticed in the field.  Unfortunately, I never got great looks at any of the birds giving these calls, so I cannot even begin to correlate call type with morphology.  However, after listening to several recordings of both species from various sources, the two calls seemed to match up pretty nicely with the taxa indicated in the links, though I would not be surprised if there is extensive individual variation in calls.  The calls that matched Common Redpolls were composed of a single, simple trill that was repeated faithfully in flight, while Hoary Redpolls seemed to have a much more complex, almost improvisational quality to their calls.  Distinct vocalizations and other forms of signaling are particularly important traits to consider when trying to determine the species status of closely related taxa in sympatry and I will leave the matter at that -- for now.

**After spending time reviewing redpoll flight calls, I am pretty sure that these two calls are simply different flight calls that either species can produce.  That being said, I do have some recordings of birds that I am reasonably confident are Hoary Redpolls and I am hoping to do a post on redpolls soon.**

As the week progressed, migration really began to escalate in the overcast skies of Bethel.  Immeasurable flocks of Tundra Swans, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Cackling Geese kept me distracted at a dangerous level during firearms training.  Afterwards, the rolling songs of newly arrived American Tree Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows raised my spirits as the bruises of countless grizzly bear slugs settled into my right shoulder.  Further soothing my ails that evening were my life Long-tailed and Parasitic Jaegars, both seen within five minutes of each other!  I found myself fervidly awing over these and every fly-by Whimbrel and bubbling Pine Grosbeak, much to the amusement of my Alaskan birding companions.  As we continued to discuss the common birds of our respective home towns, I too found myself entertained at their infatuation with my tales of spring warbler migration and backyard cardinals. 

Cackling Geese

On our final birding outing before leaving for the field in the morning, we opted for Bethel's premiere hotspot -- the local sewage pond.  As I scanned through piles of Glaucous and Mew Gulls, doing my best to avoid losing soon-to-be precious calories all over the snow, my hasty binoculars reared to a screeching hault after nearly passing a very dark-mantled gull.  With my gull identification still stuck on winter shores of the Great Lakes, I instantly thought Greater Black-backed Gull, but I knew this wasn't right.

"H-hey, Brian?"
"That's not a, um-."
Before the words could nervously fall out of my mouth, the bird graciously flashed its jeweled primaries, reavealing a textbook "string of pearls" -- a Slaty-backed Gull!  Nausea long gone and palpitations on their way, I raced back to the car for my camera and managed to snap a very mediocre shot for nostalgia more than anything.

Slaty-backed Gull

Even after months of preparing myself for new birds that I might encounter, this bird was not really on my radar.  Most records of these birds come from coastal Alaska, and rarely are they found anywhere else.  This bird was an especially pleasing surprise, as roughly a month prior, I had been kicking myself for not chasing a bird reported in Illinois (or was it Indiana?).

As nice as Bethel might sound at this point, the seven a.m. flight  to St. Mary's at the end of the week couldn't have come soon enough.  While great birds were pretty easy to come by for a midwestern boy, the town of Bethel was beginning to get to me.  Damp town legislation is ubiquitous in western Alaska, and for well-intended reasons -- alcoholism is a major issue among natives.  Indeed, for every great bird we saw around town, there must have been at least four young men, years younger than myself, unwieldy stumbling home in the rubescent tundra sun behind strollers and desecrated streets.  Watching a group of people who have such an intimate history with this land now polluting its ponds and rivers and the bodies of their ancestors that have been shaped by that same landscape for generations was truly difficult to bear witness to.  Like many great cultures across the globe, the Yup'ik future seems uncertain.  As globalization and western culture continue to rear their homogenizing heads, increasing numbers of younger members opt to leave their ancestor's way of life for McDonald's and Justin Bieber.  At several moments throughout my stay in Bethel, I felt ashamed, as a vector of western culture, for even being present in this once virgin culture -- a feeling that is hard to describe, but borders on guilt and contrite.  As Jake, the Ph.D candidate of the curlew project was often quoted, "The best part of Bethel is leaving."

Water Skipping -- A sloshed pastime (often ending in mortality)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Here's to Alaska and me

I was originally prompted to create this blog in order to document a recent excursion to the rugged expanse of snow and pre-settlement ecology that is our 49th state.  Of course, given that I was to be without electricity and internet access for seven weeks, any attempt to record the happenings of the tundra would have to be in retrospect. 

The next few posts will be my attempt to compose a rough timeline of my experiences in one of the most remote and unique wildernesses in North America, while studying its rarest and (arguably) most unique shorebird species.  The majority of the content will be consolidations from my notes in the field, supplemented by (mostly sub-par) photos and the occasional recording.