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Outdoor Alaska

Birds Like You've Never Seen


May 14, 2010

Ketchikan, Alaska - The early bird gets the bird. At least that's what I'm hoping for as I fasten on my Carole Sharp beaded hummingbird earrings, scrape 7 A.M. ice off my windshield and head for the airport ferry - with a quick stop at the grocery deli for a stuffed croissant to slip in my daypack. Steve Heinl and Andy Piston of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are leading a Gravina bird walk. This annual April walk has been their tradition since the start of the Hummingbird Festival.

Aboard the ferry, four spotting scopes are resting on tripods on the cardeck. Our first sighting locates four mallards flying north. Two cormorants are in the air as well. We are advised to look for the white flank patches that appear during breeding season and are gone by June. I nod, but the white wispy clouds are easier to discern than fast-moving patches.

There are fifteen of us: Steve and Andy, Teri Goucher, a Ketchikan naturalist who contributes articles to the Juneau Audubon Society's publication, Raven, Karla Hart who has worked with Juneau Fish and Game, a high school science teacher, a librarian, a young man with a super lens on his camera, other serious and amateur birders with notebooks in handand then there's me. I know little about birds. My friend Jim says he wouldn't confuse a sparrow with a raven or eagle. That's my level too.

At the toll booth bottleneck, we all sign in as hikers, giving names, phone numbers and estimated return time. With such a large group we take care not to spook the birds. I practice my smooth, quiet yoga walk.

It's quite cold. I'm wishing I'd worn gloves. As we walk north on the road, our first exciting observation is a robin behind the chainlink fence. Our leaders claim to see a snipe hunkered on the ground in the grass. I don't see its long bill, racing stripes, or anything at all.

A Killdeer, a type of plover, flies across our path. No one could miss that swift grace or its distinctive cry. What a beauty!

Out over the channel a big flock of narrow-winged Bonaparte's Gulls vees north. From a distance I can't distinguish the black head or white wedges that we are instructed to look for. Double-crested Cormorants zoom by - their yellow bills invisible to me. I have no trouble seeing the floatplane that roars above.

Song Sparrows overwinter here along the waterfront. Their song is cheep, cheep. Too, too, too go the Greater Yellowlegs. Steve purses his lips: chu, chu, chu calling more sparrows. In the scope, Andy centers a Savannah Sparrow on an elderberry twig.

A kestrel poses on a stick near the airport runway. Looking through the scope, I think I note green wings. Steve shows me in his bird book that the wings are blue. Later when he repositions the scope closer, I can discern a definite blue-gray hue. A kestrel is a small falcon that eats insects and small mammals and apparently is fearless. A 737 jet landing nearby doesn't budge it from its outlook post. Some of today's birders are noting each sighting. Kestrel is a first for some of us. Steve says he sees one a year at the most.

After the kestrel leaves, seed-eating Savannah Sparrows appear under the alders, hopping about and raising their yellow eyebrows. Everyone knows the difference between the various sparrows, right? Fox Sparrow, brown and basically nondescript. Lincoln's Sparrow gray and brown with fine pinstripes. Song Sparrow? Savannah Sparrow? Oh well, I can't expect to learn them all at once. At least 489 bird species have been identified in Alaska. I have a few to go.

More Bonaparte's Gulls migrate up the channel. Followed by another formation. Flocks of them pass by so frequently I lose count. They travel north past Southeast to other parts of Alaska where they nest in trees. Most other gulls nest on the ground and savagely protect their vulnerable eggs - as I can attest, having been dive bombed by vigilant gull parents in Glacier Bay.

Andy and Steve call out: Sandpiper! Golden-crowned Sparrow! Scoters! How do they see these things so easily?

I'm diverted by other signs of spring on this blue sky morning: salmonberry blossoms hot pink in the sun, drooping alder flowers, pussy willows still showing some catkins, and an impressive stand of horsetail in a deep mud-brown pond. Birders would actually prefer a low overcast or even a storm. With today's fine weather, migrators have no need to seek refuge. They overhead our airport.

To skirt the fence, we push through alder thicket and slog through reeds and mud. One of our number sinks to mid-calf - good thing she is wearing boots. Next come piles of precarious rocks - fill that has changed the natural habitat. To encourage us, Andy promises an Orange-crowned Warbler waiting at the brush and trees. He's just heard it. The only orange I see is an errant dock barricade trapped between two drift logs.

A Townsend's Warbler calls. It's Andy's Ipod. The answering song seems to be from another kind of bird. Steve tries to describe the different songs to us -Townsends buzz, Orange-crowned Warblers trill high and descend at the end, Varied Thrushes shrill. A flock of American Pipits flit overhead. They say their name, a two-note call. Alpine breeders, this large flock of the tiny birds is still at sea level.

Later I do get a good glimpse of the tiny and elusive Orange-crowned Warbler. It resembles a different citrus - a velvety ripe lime - albeit a fruit with the power of flight. When it zigzags across the road in front of us, everyone is gratified.

Another very small bird is the Golden-crowned Kinglet. Andy calls it in with his Ipod, and we struggle to see the tiny creature. It's coming in through the spruce. Look in the little alder behind the stunted pine just to the left of the elderberry bush. Easier to spot when they move, but then of course, you can't see the markings clearly when they just won't hold still. He has a white belly. The male has black and white stripes on his face. - or at least that is what we are told. They never stop moving.

The drumming of a woodpecker catches our ears. A red and white flicker flashes into view, stops briefly to drum on a metal box and disappears. A Red-breasted Sapsucker is in less of a hurry. A series of sapholes line the tree he is pecking.

A pair of Canada Geese swims in the inlet. Teals are spotted at the far end. Mallards take flight with an American Wigeon tagging along. I never knew they did that. Teri says always look carefully- often a sole bird of another species will take advantage of the windbreak formation.

We take a break at the beach. It's high tide so the islet access is cut off, and the mud flats are covered. The guys set up the scopes focussed on the far shore.

I risk a photo with my puny digital camera - I'm no Jim Lewis, but the Glaucous-winged Gulls on a rock outcropping are out in the open and reasonably stationary. Mew Gulls share the space. Overhead more Bonaparte's Gulls wing on. Maybe they'll stop for herring off South Point Higgins.

Snacktime. I'm glad I packed that croissant. I sneak out my painting gear for a quick watercolor. It's hard to choose the subject - the half-sunken boat? the purple lupine? the islet? the red berry stems with pink buds? These subjects kindly cooperate by posing stolidly and refraining from flitting about.

Steve and Andy evidently hear or see a Hermit Thrush, a Steller's Jay, and a Red-throated Loon. They listen for a grouse and expect a Northern Harrier hawk, but those give us a miss today.

Steve, who works as a fisheries biologist, was always interested in birds. He would go hunting with his grandfather for duck and pheasant. Now he continues the hunt with the challenge of learning birdcalls and songs, markings, habitat, breeding behavior, nesting preferences, and migration patterns. He notes differences each winter and each migration. The thrill of finding unusual species is a lure. Andy too, was always interested in everything outdoors. Working with Steve has increased his expertise.

Teri, who guided a Hummingbird Festival walk this year around Ward Lake, paid tribute to her high school teacher who took his students on a field trip. She has been birding ever since. It's something you can do anywhere. A great hobby and lots of fun!

A Yellow-rumped Warbler waves farewell as we sign back in and wait for the ferry. I make more notes for next year: attend the Friday Night Insight Birds of the Ketchikan Area program sponsored by the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, wear boots, bring binoculars!

We'd been promised birds like you've never seen before! Never seen is right. And while it's true I didn't see all of them, and struggled to pick out flutters in far off trees, I did see a fair number of birds.

Interested birders can pick up a checklist updated by Karla Hart at the Misty Fjords Ranger District at Bar Harbor. The official checklist of the birds of Alaska is maintained by the "Alaska Checklist Committee" and is available at the University of Alaska Museum's website at Steve Heinl is one of the four committee members. Karla Hart's checklist is based on this committee's work.

Checklists are also available online from Wings over Alaska at Wings Over Alaska participants can earn free certificates for bird species seen in Alaska with the highest certificate eligible for the Governor's signature.

Birders can also record sightings and observations at, a program to track birding efforts and to contribute to scientific data.

A list of the birds that some saw or heard on our Saturday, April 23, 2010 excursion to Gravina.

American Pipit
American Robin
American Wigeon
Bonaparte's Gull
Canada Goose
Common Goldeneye
Double-crested Cormorant
Fox Sparrow
Glaucous-winged Gull
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Greater Yellowlegs
Green-winged Teal
Hermit Thrush
American Kestrel
Lincoln's Sparrow
MallardMew Gull
Northern Flicker
Orange-crowned Warbler
Pelagic Cormorant
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Red-throated Loon
Red-breasted Merganser
Rufous Hummingbird
Savannah Sparrow
Surf Scoter
Song Sparrow
Steller's JayTownsend's Warbler
Wilson's Snipe
Varied Thrush
Yellow-rumped Warbler



M.J. Turek is an artist and a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.


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