The best of days is one spent birding from morning until night. The more time I spend working in an office, the more I have to get myself outside. The reality of a permanent job with the NPS is time spent sitting at a computer. It seems an oxymoron for the best of educators and interpreters to be recognized by being sequestered indoors, far from teaching opportunity. I am not claiming to be an excellent educator, just a lucky one who was recently offered this seemingly unattainable permanent job status and is now experiencing more time in an office.
I live in a fishbowl where humans are the species swimming in a small, “civilized” world surrounded by wildness. One begins to wonder who is watching whom? Yesterday, I went birding with a fellow birder in town. We walked along the Nature Conservancy beach for hours in search of tiny, spindly-legged shorebirds. After hours of walking and scanning with binocular and scope, we finally happened upon a group of Baird’s Sandpipers, a life bird for me. Identifying birds is not nearly as simple as identifying plants, not that I am claiming simplicity in either of these endeavors. The challenge with birds is their tendency to travel. A bird may reveal itself for a split second, during which time the birder must take note of as many identifying characteristics as possible and hope he/she has remembered to bring a Sibley Guide for quick reference. Of course, with many birds, of which shorebirds are no exception, you might notice all of the qualities that this bird shares with one or more species but miss the tiny streaks beneath its rump that differentiate it. This is the joy and frustration of birding.
On this particular day, the Baird’s were quite cooperative, and we watched them for some time before moving on. The most impressive bird of the day was the Pacific Golden Plover pair, camouflaged so perfectly among the barnacles in a way that only years of evolution could attain, that we could barely find them after they landed. Upon arrival to barnacle habitat, we flushed the plovers, who flew so far it seemed I have missed my chance to see them. I was skeptical of my fellow birder’s assurance that they would return, but after cruising out over Icy Strait, they did indeed land in this habitat and instantly blend in with such ease that a predator would be fortunate to find them. I think shorebirds might take home the blue ribbon for camouflage. We nearly stepped on two Black Turnstones earlier in the day they were so hidden.
I cannot take credit for finding the plovers without assistance from my guide, though I insisted on finding them in my scope on my own after he located them in his. Did I mention that birding can get pretty competitive? Birders often feel the need to prove their worth to other birders, and I am no exception. I also cannot take credit for differentiating these birds from their nearly identical counterparts, the American Golden Plover. I was happy to take my friend’s word and equally thrilled to have the opportunity to watch them for many minutes before leaving them to continue on our way.
Further down the beach, we watched a black bear plodding along the upper beach by the forest’s edge. Bear have such a distinct walk; you can almost feel the sand being compressed under the pads of their feet with each step. I had never noticed how their back feet flop from heel to toe. We walked further up the beach to allow it time and space to continue on its way without our interrupting it. Later in the afternoon, we walked beside the bear’s tracks. They looked almost human, interwoven with interspersed wolf tracks. My friend commented how inspiring it is to live in a place where you can follow the paths of such wild creatures, never knowing when you might happen upon one. On multiple occasions when he has been out birding, he has turned around to find fresh tracks and wondered when and for how long he was being watched by another.
With the rising tide, we were unable to cross the Good River, so we followed an ORV trail that runs parallel to the river. Slogging along, we stopped periodically to listen for foraging flocks of chickadees, nuthatch, kinglets, and warblers – another sign of the onset of fall. During one of these pauses, I hear a strange sound in the distance and realized it was the call of many wolves, howling in the distance. They may have been standing by our recent tracks along the upper beach. We had been listening for mere seconds, when the experience was cut short by the familiar sound of an air taxi, which filled the air with the roar of its engine. By the time it has passed out of earshot, the wolves were quiet, and I was irritated. I was reminded of a knock knock joke about an interrupting cow, though even the most obnoxious of jokes pales in comparison to the frustration and disappointment the sound of the airplane stirred within me, both irksome and disappointing for its deeper implications for the relationship between humans and this wild place. What gives anyone the right to so blatantly overpower and destroy the natural quiet and balance of an ecosystem? How can someone have such complete disregard for other people’s desire and need to experience this world without the presence of overpowering and unwanted sounds of man? I mulled over these questions, all the while realizing my own contradiction. I cannot differentiate myself from others of my kind, for I too depend on these air taxis for transportation, groceries, mail, and the comforts of a modern life. Yet, unlike many of my kind, I will have the chance to hopefully hear many wolves during my time in Alaska.