Birdwatching on the Gweek River
Most of this area where I live in southwest
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
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,
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
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
With thermoses of hot coffee and binoculars in hand, we left
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:
Great Horned Owl
American Tree Sparrow
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
So for any of you birdwatchers out there who are interested in the avian populations here, you couldn’t do better than to contact
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.
Labels: Tundra Life