Sunday, June 15, 2008

Birdwatching on the Gweek River

Most of this area where I live in southwest Alaska is a huge wildlife refuge, the 19 million acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. The headquarters for the Refuge are here in Bethel, a fairly long way from the Yukon River, leading some of us to feel that it should be named the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta NWR.

The Y-K Delta is the summer home to a huge population of migratory birds, particularly waterfowl. Birds come here from all over the world—as far away as Malaysia and South America—to mate, build nests, and raise their young. Such a long trip is worth their effort because of the tremendous untouched habitat available in this region of half land/half water, and because of the bounteous food source that our famous Alaskan mosquitoes provide them.

Those of us two-leggeds who share the habitat with them are certainly appreciative of the degree to which the birds reduce that pesky population, though they could eat five times as many mosquitoes as they do and still barely make a dent in the numbers. I read once that if Alaska’s summer mosquito population were condensed into a solid block, it would be a cubic mile of biomass.

Just as birds fly great distances to get here, so do birdwatchers. Avid birders and even ornithologists come away from a birdwatching visit here with new additions to their Life Lists (birds they may only see once in a lifetime).

But despite the huge summer avian population, Bethel is something of a well-kept secret when it comes to the development of birdwatching tourism. There are not a lot of ways for visitors to get out where the birds are and see them. One local company, Kuskokwim Wilderness Adventures, is working hard to change that.

KWA is owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Bev Hoffman and John McDonald, two of my long-time friends, and Bev's brother and SIL Mike and Jill Hoffman. Bev was born and raised here, and brought John back here with her from college more than thirty years ago. They are both excellent dog mushers, fishermen, and skilled outdoors people. For years I have planned to go on one of their spring birdwatching trips but just never got around to doing it. Yesterday I finally did.

We had an absolutely gorgeous day. The sky was brilliant blue with a few scattered shreds of cloud; the sun had some real strength to it, which gave us temperatures in the low 70s; and there was a light and steady breeze on the rivers which mostly kept the mosquitoes away. It just doesn’t get much better than that!

A group of seven of us, with John and Bev as our guides, left the small boat harbor at 6 AM in two boats with comfortable enclosed interiors. Our destination was the upper reaches of the Gweek River, a tributary of the Kuskokwim whose mouth is about ten miles upriver from Bethel. The Gweek is a tundra river some forty miles long which drains a huge area to the west of the Kuskokwim; as such it is not a salmon-spawning river as it does not come from the mountains and therefore contains no gravel, which the salmon require for their redds. The water of the Gweek contains so much tannin from the thick tundra plant carpet that it looks like tea. It could aptly be named the Lipton River.

At that early hour on a Saturday morning there was no one up and about either around town or out on the river. We did not see a single other boat until we got back to the Kuskokwim in mid afternoon. To me, true wilderness is not just the lack of human-made structures; it is also the absence of other humans. Even a wild location, such as many of our national forests, doesn’t feel like wilderness when there are people around other than whatever group I am with. I feel incredibly fortunate to live in a place where such true wilderness is not just available, it is everywhere around me, and as easy to access as a quick boat or snowmachine ride.

With thermoses of hot coffee and binoculars in hand, we left Bethel behind and were soon cruising up the Gweek River. This was the last of John and Bev’s four Saturday trips, and they had locations of particular interest plotted on their GPS units. We pulled off into several small sloughs, cut the motors and just drifted with the slight current, listening to a myriad of bird calls. John’s ability to identify birds from their call is phenomenal. He quickly named a half dozen birds we were hearing, which to me just sounded like a conglomerate chatter of bird noise.

At several places on the river we pulled over to the bank and all climbed out of the boats to hike through birch groves and up on to the tundra in search of several specific species with known nesting spots. John and Bev have been doing these trips for over fifteen years and are intimately familiar with the area and the birds’ patterns and locations of nesting. We walked right up to a small tree which had a Great Horned Owl nest with two half-grown chicks in it. They were so fuzzy they looked like little ewoks from Star Wars. They never moved the whole time we watched them, but just sat in the nest about twenty feet off the ground looking down at us. The previous two Saturdays, John said, the adult owls have been close by, watching us watch them protectively. Yesterday we did not see them near the nest, but saw one of them later one slough away.

Great Horned Owls are big birds with strong wings and are amazingly efficient predators of small animals. Here in the Delta, they mainly eat rabbits, but they are omnivores who will eat just about anything. My dad told me an interesting story this morning which I have to divert briefly to relay. A couple who are good friends of his, the Rocket Scientist and the Birdwatcher, visited a wildlife refuge in California where the park rangers told them of a Great Horned Owl within the refuge who was closely monitored for twelve years. When the bird died, they took ladders to get to its large nest, and in the nest they found 120 cat collars. Owls are not only efficient hunters, they are opportunists. They will make dinner out of whatever is easiest to catch.

In addition to seeing and hearing lots of birds, we also hiked over some beautiful land that I had not seen before—huge lakes, wildflowers, thick stands of cottonwood and birch trees. And it was such a gorgeous day to be out. When we were on land the mosquitoes found us pretty quickly and would have been crazy-making if not for the bug shirts which John and Bev provided.

They are called The Original Bug Shirt—Elite Edition, and they are the ultimate garment to have when bugs are out. They are very light weight, have elastic drawstrings at cuffs and hem and a hood with zip-up fine-mesh face screen roomy enough to fit over a bill cap which holds the mesh away from your face. Side and underarm panels are mesh as well, allowing the breeze to keep you cool when the weather is hot. They can be worn over a tee-shirt or under a jacket. The shirt folds up into its own front pocket for easy storage. It comes in tan and dark green and costs about $70 from the Bug Shirt people. For those readers in the Bethel area, the K-300 Feed Store (which John and Bev operate) sell them for $60. There is also a camouflage version which is slightly more. In my opinion it is the best thing out there and well worth the money. Dutch and I both have one of each color.

When we finally stopped for lunch, it was just past noon and we were about thirty miles up the Gweek. We anchored in the middle of the river, tied the two boats together, and feasted on a lunch of deli sandwiches, home-made killer potato salad, chips, cookies and beverages. John brought out copies of the wildlife refuge’s list of known bird species within our area so we could count the ones we had seen that day. Of the 102 birds on the list, we spotted 39:

Tundra Swan

Green-wing Teal




American Wigeon

Lesser Scaup

Black Scoter


Bald Eagle

Rough-legged Hawk

Sandhill Crane

Greater Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Common Snipe

Long-tailed Jaeger

Glaucous Gull

Arctic Tern

Great Horned Owl

Alder Flycatcher

Tree Swallow

Bank Swallow


Gray-cheek Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush


Orange-crown Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Myrtle Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler


Wilson’s Warbler

American Tree Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Slate-colored Junco

Rusty Blackbird


Birds from the list that are frequently seen here but just not around yesterday are Pine Grosbeak, Phalarope, Willow Ptarmigan, Canada Goose, Common Loon, Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Black-cap Chickadee, Shrike. And then there is my pair of Pacific Golden Plover near the house which I saw yesterday but the rest of the people on the trip did not.

One bird that we had great hopes of seeing was the Hudsonian Godwit. There is a nesting area for these shy birds around a small tundra pond a short hike from the Gweek. John and Bev saw them two weeks ago, but they did not choose to show themselves to us yesterday. In the previous two trips, John said they also saw moose and black bear, but we had no such luck; the only mammals we saw were beaver.

With lunch done and equipment stowed we made a straight shot back to Bethel in about an hour and half. Once we got back to the Kuskokwim there were quite a few (maybe a dozen) boats out drift-netting for salmon. The king (Chinook) run is starting to get strong and the reds (sockeye) are just beginning to come up the river. Several friends were out fishing yesterday and this morning and I was delighted to be gifted some fresh salmon—my first of the season, and I am so hungry for it.

So for any of you birdwatchers out there who are interested in the avian populations here, you couldn’t do better than to contact Kuskokwim Wilderness Adventures. John and Bev are excellent guides who will take great care of you.

Photos by The Tundra PA. I was feeling too lazy to make 39 links for your easy clicking pleasure to Wiki all the birds we saw, but they are there if you are interested. The last photo is a Tundra Swan in flight, and yes, the sky was that incredible color all day long. The only photoshopping I did was to reduce the pixel size, no color enhancing was done.



Blogger RunninL8 said...

Wow, what an excellent time!
I would have loved to have seen those owls. The only taste I've had are to "hoots" at night.
I can't wait for next week when we can "get out of town" and head to the Russian. No shortage of exploring here!

Sunday, June 15, 2008 3:06:00 PM  
Blogger Bardiac said...

Holy cow! What an incredible day! You saw lots of birds, too!

Sunday, June 15, 2008 7:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hate to see you leave the tundra but looking forward to hearing about the Kenai. Your writings have made me want to see Alaska so planning on coming this summer. Best of luck to you and may God richly bless you. FM

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 1:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went today to Surveyor's Exchange in Anchorage and bought a bug shirt for my daughter's upcoming Yukon canoe trip; I think it will be perfect. Thanks for the recommendation.

Friday, June 20, 2008 1:06:00 AM  

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