Thursday, June 18, 2015

Birding like a pro

While I was in Fairbanks last week, I found out I'd be assisting a biologist, working for BLM, with a bird survey. I didn't know exactly what that would entail, only that it would begin at about 1:00 AM on Monday or Tuesday earlier this week. I didn't know much else until the biologist, Jen, arrived in Coldfoot on Sunday.

Jen led a few of us on a little nature walk from the visitor center down to the Middle Fork Koyukuk River. Along the way, we stopped periodically to listen for birds, and she identified the chirps and whistles for us, some close and distinctive, some distant and detected only by Jen's trained ears.

Soon we had a good sense of the most common species near the visitor center. White-crowned sparrows have one of the most easily recognized songs, nearly always consisting of three rising notes, then two falling. Different individuals might trill the first note or add some other variation.

Swainson's thrushes have a song that sounds like a tape being sped up faster and faster, the pitch spiraling upward. After close listening, it's really just three strong notes that rise in pitch, but the end of each note drops a bit before the next one starts.

Dark-eyed juncos sound like an early cordless telephone ringing. Yellow-rumped warblers, according to Jen, say "chub chub chub," although that isn't quite how I hear it.

When we got to the river, we began to hear fox sparrows, whose calls sound like "a mess," according to Jen. For sure, I haven't even begun to figure how to imitate their song, the notes of which rise and fall, with trills, sustains, or staccato rhythms, all chosen seemingly at random.

We saw swifts, but couldn't tell what type exactly. Jen told us about other birds which sound just like juncos, which are rarer but not out of the question to hear in this area, and others that could easily be mistaken for yellow-rumped warblers.

To further complicate identification, gray jays, which have their own highly complex set of calls and songs, will also imitate other birds. American robins are also very common here, and I'm embarrassed to admit I'm still learning what they sound like, despite having always lived in parts of the country littered with robins. For now, they're the birds that sound kinda familiar.

After the walk, Jen discussed with Joe and I what we'd be doing over the next couple mornings. Joe would be driving with her north, leaving her Marion Creek cabin at about 2:00 AM. After reaching a certain mile marker, they'd get out of the truck and watch and listen for birds for three minutes. Jen would record every bird she was able to observe and identify, charting approximately what direction and how far away each individual bird was. She'd record the mile mark and time, and other relevant data, and then they'd drive 0.5 miles south and do it again.

They'd be doing this at each 0.5 mile point for 25 miles. It would be finished by 9:00 AM if everything went according to plan.

I learned I'd be doing the same exact thing Tuesday morning, but driving south for 25 miles before heading back north to do the survey.

I thought backwards, keeping my work schedule in mind. I'd want to be well rested before the survey, since I was meant to opening the visitor center at 10:30 AM afterward, and working until 7:30 PM. So I should be sleeping until about 12:30 AM, giving myself time to eat, make coffee, pack a bag with warm clothes and snacks, and get to Marion Creek.

My shift on Monday had been adjusted to end at 1:30 PM, so I'd be set to have an afternoon doing whatever, and getting to bed by 4:30 PM. Eight hours of sleep, no problem! But I'm never really able to sleep when I'm not tired, so I decided to make sure I'd be tired and stay up late the night before, Sunday night, i.e. that very night.

It just so happened I was scheduled to clean the visitor center that night (a side job, contracted out to whoever of us want the extra bit of income), so I knew that would eat up a couple hours eaily. I ended up staying online Sunday night until about 11:30 PM, then went to the visitor center to sweep, vacuum, and mop, listening to my own CDs through the gift shop speakers. I finished at about 1:30 AM or so, and wandered over to the Coldfoot staff lounge to see who might be up. A couple people were playing cribbage and enjoying refreshing canned beverages. I was offered one, and graciously accepted, setting my laptop bag against the wall and sitting across the table. Our conversation lasted until around 3:30 AM, when I decided to head back to my cabin for the bit of sleep I planned to get that night.

On Monday, I left work at 1:30 PM as planned, went to the old visitor center to get online as planned, and then wandered over to Coldfoot again, with a question I'd been meaning to ask them, as planned.

We're in the middle of a heat wave this week, and when Jen took us to the river, I couldn't help but say out loud how much I wanted to go swimming, even though the Koyukuk is shallow, frigid, and has a dangerous current. Generally, this is not a recommended activity, but it seemed like it could be done somewhat safely. Stick to the eddies, bring a buddy, check the water for logs and boulders, etc.

So I poked my head into the restaurant side of Coldfoot camp and asked someone if swimming was something that people would consider doing. She said, yeah, probably, and then I saw another Coldfooter, who asked what was up, how I was, or something like that. I asked him the same thing, and before I knew it, four of them had agreed to come with me to the river to swim. This wasn't exactly my plan, but sure, okay. Let's go swimming.

Swimming in the Koyukuk is pretty much wading in, cursing at how cold it is, then dunking your whole body in for a few seconds if you're susceptible to peer pressure. The cold makes you want to take shallow breaths, or stop breathing altogether, so it takes effort just to get enough air in your lungs, even if you're only floating. Swimming, that is, kicking and pulling with your arms to make forward progress, wasn't really possible.

So I dried off and warmed up by the side of the river, and took my leave at about 6:30 PM. I could still get about six hours of sleep, which should be enough.

Unfortunately, I got about three. I couldn't really sleep after 10:00 PM. At about midnight, I made myself a dinner/breakfast of steamed broccoli, a baked potato, butter, two hotdogs with ketchup, some cottage cheese, and a kosher dill pickle or two. (I hadn't really eaten since breakfast that morning.)
I got a bag together with warm clothes and a satellite phone. I skipped packing food, but brought a bottle of water, and another of orange juice from concentrate. I grabbed my coffee mug and drove to the visitor center, where I planned to brew a couple cups. Luckily, enough was left over from the day before to fill my mug, and I was on my way.

I arrived at Marion Creek early. Jen was still getting her truck ready, but she handed me a Nikon DSLR camera to figure out how to use before we left, so I could get pictures of birds if the opportunity presented itself.

Before long, we were ready to go. I threw my backpack into her truck, put on a bright orange safety vest she gave me, and climbed into the driver seat. There's a certain way to step into a big truck in one fluid motion, and I get it right about a third of the time. More often I put the wrong foot up first and have to shuffle into position. I got a lot of practice on this trip.

Before we even got to the highway, we were practically talking politics, and I was recommending a Steven Pinker book as an enlightening read on the nature of human violence. It seemed neither of us were afraid to speak our minds, nor did we have any reason to be.

Twenty-five miles south of Marion Creek, the Dalton Highway crosses the South Fork of the Koyukuk River. The mile marker at that point was our first stop. We got out of the truck, I stretched my legs, and we took turns walking into the woods to pee. We took our time; we were ahead of schedule.

After a sip of coffee, we began the first three minutes of listening. I don't remember exactly, but there were likely four or five individual birds observed, of two to four species. That would have been typical.

Jen would have asked me what I heard, and I would have heard the white-crowned sparrow or the Swainson's thrush if there had been one, and not much else. She'd tell me what she heard, and I'd be impressed, possibly dazzled, and, if there had been a robin, embarrassed.

Here's what I do remember: the second point was on a fairly steep hill where the highway curved on the incline. This is actually a dangerous enough spot to be one of the CB callouts. We didn't have a CB, incidentally. There's a plan to get one for Jen sometime soon. We stood for 3 minutes on that incline, up against a guard rail, listening for both birds and oncoming semis from above the hill. Down the hill wasn't a concern; we could see for miles in that direction. We weren't flattened that day, but on our way back to our truck, a semi came barreling down the hill. I was sure I'd be witnessing a catastrophic accident and a man's untimely death, but it zoomed around the downhill curve as if on rails. Truckers. That's why we call out that curve on CB.

A little further along, the wind prevented us from hearing much for several points. We drove ahead to see if it would abate anytime soon, and a few miles up it didn't seem so bad. So we went back where we'd stopped and kept at it.

At 3:00 AM, by the way, the sun was up, but low. Any mountains in the northeast would put us in a chilly shade, but by 5:00 AM the sun had risen above them.

Luckily, early morning is the perfect time for both listening for birds and for avoiding heavy traffic on the highway. If a big truck rolled by it could disrupt nearly a minute of listening time, but there was no pausing or restarting for such interruptions. That would be bad science, and we didn't have a lot of spare time, anyway. In fact, after our reconnaissance mission, we had gone from "ahead of schedule" to "just barely on schedule."

As we got closer to Coldfoot, our time improved. I'd finished my coffee and was halfway through my bottle of OJ. Pee breaks were not frequent, but well appreciated.

Since I'd mastered white-crowned sparrows ("I am a white-crowned sparrow" was Jen's mnemonic) and Swainson's thrushes (spiraling out of control), Jen had me listen for juncos (pronounced "JUNK-oes," not "HOON-koes," unfortunately). Alas, juncos were few and far between on our survey, so when they did sing, I'd invariably be caught off-guard as Jen asked "what was that?" with a mischievous smile. ("Uhhhhh, OH, right, a... a... junco!") At one point, though, the loudest and closest bird by far was a junco, and it was exactly like a telephone ringing, but one that no one was answering, and wasn't hooked up to an answering machine. I was glad to move on from that spot.

Sometimes, the challenge was picking out the four or five individuals, all singing the same song. I called this the "How many white-crowned sparrows? game." In other places, we could clearly hear four or five birds again, but some singing, some calling, and no two birds sounding alike. In response to my earlier comment, Jen called this the "How many different birds? game," or something cleverer than that.

At one point, a bird sang out with a very clear and distinctive song, but one I wasn't familiar with. "What was that?" Jen quizzed me. I ran the tune over in my head, hummed it out, but no answer seemed quite right. I hedged, "fox sparrow?" and she said, "very good!" Soon, every bird with a complex but unfamiliar song became a fox sparrow in my mind. That probably wasn't the intended lesson.

I got a little bit better at identifying juncos and yellow-rumped warblers, but plenty of other species had calls so similar to them that I was never entirely sure what I'd heard. White-crowned sparrows and Swainson's thrushes became my houses built on rock. I was always happy to hear one so I could say something like "at least three white-crowned sparrows," and indicate in what directions when Jen asked me what I'd heard at a point.

We made a few stops within or right outside Coldfoot itself, which felt silly, but no one was out at 8:30 AM to witness us. Soon, we were out again, and headed further north, back to Marion Creek. Our last point was just beyond Marion Creek, at mile mark 180.

Between Coldfoot and Marion Creek, Jen informed me we had three more points to complete, and ten minutes to do them. I still don't know what we did with the time we'd saved after our early recon mission.

Luckily, we were able to begin the last point at the literal last minute. I'd heard that the entire survey would have been scrapped had we missed it, but Jen acted as if only the last point would be dropped, which wouldn't be so bad. She'd said in her early days, she once pushed herself to exhaustion to reach a last point on time, but two teams behind her had no hope of making it before time was up, and it was a survey that had to be replicated by all three teams. So young Jen had wasted her efforts, and a colleague of hers still brings it up regularly, to her humored chagrin.

With the last point completed, we returned to Jen's cabin at Marion Creek. I removed my bright orange and yellow safety vest, replaced the big fancy camera to its case (I'm afraid those photos belong to the U.S. Government now, and I don't have access to them), and collected my backpack and coffee mug.

I drove back to my cabin, arriving at about 9:30 AM, ate a couple bowls of cereal, changed into my work clothes, and walked to the visitor center for the opening shift. Jenny and Bryant were there (my supervisors and co-managers of the visitor center this summer), Bryant having just arrived from Fairbanks the night before. I think they were both a little surprised to see me, or at least wouldn't have been surprised to not see me, but while I certainly was tired, I didn't feel that bad, really. Joe, who'd done the survey the morning before, had taken the next day off, and I knew that I could do the same.

Was it pride? One-upmanship? Stubbornness to stick to the schedule? Was I showing off?

Yes, absolutely.

Jenny and Bryant even suggested I get some sleep, but I demurred. They continued discussing operations and whatnot while I turned on the lights, counted the opening till into the cash register, and collected the data from our weather station. I opened the doors (but forgot to take down the closed sign) and greeted the first few groups of visitors, answering their various questions and generally being bright and friendly. Did I mention I brewed more coffee? I'd brewed more coffee. Essentially, I was running the visitor center alone (though backup was a knock away) on less than six hours of sleep from the past two nights.

Soon, things quieted down, and the next shift arrived at 1:30 PM. I hung on until 2:30 PM, when I decided I'd be more productive if I was working on projects instead of waiting at the desk, but I was way too tired to focus on a project in a quiet room alone. So I announced I'd be taking a lunch break and not coming back, which was received much better than that statement would under normal circumstances.

I got back to my cabin, shut my curtains, closed my door, changed into pajamas, and fell fast asleep. I woke up at around 8:30 PM, got a snack, and read in bed until 1:30 AM, having at that point finished the book, Wildwood by Colin Meloy (lead singer of The Decemberists). I slept again until 10:30 AM, and arrived a bit late for my shift today, but thoroughly well-rested.

I'd dreamed of birds, of course.

Thanks for reading.


No comments:

Post a Comment