Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: Subarctic Waterbird Paradise, pt. 1


01 CampsnowI’ve known, ever since reading Frank Bellrose’s Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America as a kid, that the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is one of the world’s epicenters for nesting waterfowl. I was pretty excited when a friend asked if I was interested in visiting a research camp on the delta.

I decided to head out at the beginning of May, and witness the birds’ arrival and migration of others that would continue north. I needed to fly from Anchorage out to Bethel and then, in a small plane, north to the small village of Chevak. Once in Chevak I needed to hire someone to take me about 30 miles out to camp by snowmobile. 16 Mandy1Timing was 19 Camptowercrucial. The idea was to get out to camp during the last few days that snowmobile travel was possible. A few weeks later (in theory) I would return to Chevak by boat and fly home. If I waited too late, travel to the camp would be impossible as there wouldn’t be enough snow for snowmobile travel, and the rivers would be frozen or choked with ice, not allowing boat travel. I warned my family and employer that I may not be back when they wanted me back.

03 mooseroast02 BoyscoutsThe following is a condensed version of my journal.

May 3: I arrived in Chevak. It was sunny and in the high 30’s and not the best sledding but we made it. On the way out I saw Willow Ptarmigan, White-fronted Geese, Sandhill Cranes, Tundra Swans, Glaucous & Mew Gulls and my first ever Arctic Fox. I arrived in camp to meet four people I’d never met before. It helped that I showed up with a huge moose roast (a gift from a Chevak resident)! Another local couple stopped by and gave04 voletrap 16 voleus some Salmonberry jam. I got to check out a few ptarmigan they had shot. It was a big vole year and the camp was overrun with them – lots of vole poop in the weatherports and you couldn’t leave anything on the floors or risk having it chewed up. Migration was pretty slow and the crew had only seen a few Brant a couple days before I arrived. Behind camp there was a puddle and in it were a few Pintails, a Mallard, and a Rock Sandpiper. Winds were often from the north, but every day bird numbers and diversity would improve. If it was sunny in the morning, I’d get into my frozen waders and head out with the camera gear. If it was cloudy, I slept in and just watched birds after breakfast.

08 Lapland. 05 Ptarm1 17 Bar-tailedGodwit
May 5: I saw my first flock of Emperor Geese coming in off the Bering Sea ice!! At first, the ptarmigan were hard to approach but eventually I got close. I had fun feeding voles to the gulls. The first week was pretty tough photography. There weren’t many birds around and they were wary. It was also tough to cover much ground in the deep snow and you never knew when you’d fall through into 2 feet of water.

May 9: The first big flock of Brant showed up (38) along with more White-fronts, Cacklers, and Emperors.

May 10-12: Lapland Longspurs, McKay’s Buntings, Redpolls, Short-eared Owls, Bar-tailed Godwits, Black Turnstones, Parasitic & Long-tailed Jaegers, Black-bellied & Pacific Golden Plovers, Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, Red-throated Loon, Savannah Sparrows and Arctic Terns started showing up in small numbers.

07 Sandhillpair 14 WFpair 09 Pintailflock
The next few days brought Caspian Tern, Sabine’s Gull, Western Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Red Knot, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and my first ever Spectacled Eiders. Howie (another duck hunter!), got to watch a drake King Eider swimming with a pair of Spectacled Eiders!!! There was one pond that opened earlier than anything else, and it was the place to be! As Howie and I sat there talking about what great shots we would be making with our guns(!), we were surrounded by Brant, Cacklers, White-fronts, a few Emperors and a lot of shorebirds. Common and Spectacled27 RTLooncourt 32 PacificLoonEiders would rip right by us, sometimes landing on the far side of the pond. A pair of Red-throated Loons crashed in and were sometimes joined by a third, and then the loon wars would start.

May 15-16: Red-necked Phalaropes, American & Eurasian Wigeon, Green-winged Teal and Greater Scaup began to arrive. I also got into some good photo ops with the Spec 28 Chevakhunters29 subssledEiders and RT Loons. On the night of May 16 some locals stopped by after a hunt out on the edge of the Bering Sea ice (22 miles out). They had some Cackling & White-fronted Geese, Harbor & Ringed Seals and two juvie Beluga Whales! We talked and drank coffee until about 1:30am and also tasted a bit of raw Beluga Whale tail!!!!! I probably won’t do that again.

May 18-19: Pacific Loon and Shoveler showed up. The snow & ice were gradually13 Brantnorthtower 11 Emptriomelting and we set up our own tents.

May 20: we woke up to 2″ of new snow. It was wet and didn’t last long. Northern Wheatear, Yellow Wagtail and Pomarine Jaeger showed up but will continue further north.

May 21: American Tree Sparrow and Red Phalarope put in a brief appearance.

May 22: I was walking SSW of camp and heard what sounded like a person whistling for attention. I looked up and watched my first Bristle-thighed Curlew as it headed NE towards the mountains! Also, the first Brant nests were found today.
38 BrantNest 22 Cackcamp 10 Swanfog

May 23: There was a male Golden-crowned sparrow hanging around behind the weatherports. Over the next few days photo ops improved and more Brant nests were being found.

20 BBPlov 21 RedKnot 39 Brantmale
May 25: The crew was now hard at work all day and, once breakfast was over, I usually would not talk to them again until 11pm, and we wouldn’t have dinner until midnight if not later. Brant were nesting in good numbers, although much lower than normal. Also on nests were Glaucous, Mew and Sabine’s Gulls, Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Cacklers, Common Eiders and Pintails. Two pintails chose to make their nests in camp right under the rainflies of our tents!43 PintailCabelas

May 26: I saw a drake hybrid Green-winged x Common teal. Sorry, no pics. In the evening I laid down at the edge of a pond to photograph Red-necked Phalaropes and most of the time they were too close to focus on.

May 28: I found my first Spectacled Eider nest very close to camp. The hen flushed about 15 ft away off of a well formed nest bowl – no down or eggs yet…. New birds in camp included a Tree Swallow and a 31 Swanfight30 SwancourtRobin. A few miles south of camp I found a few White-front and crane nests. Also, saw a pair of Pectoral Sandpipers. The big news of the day was a pair of neck-collared swans that Howie found. They had been banded by him and Chris last winter in Nevada!!!25 Specbluewater26 Specpairflap

May 30: The river was changing quickly with the tide moving and breaking up the ice. But it still didn’t look like I would be able to leave any time soon. I found a Parasitic Jaeger nest. I had an excellent evening of photography with two very cooperative drake Spec Eiders.

Continued…

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~ by David Stimac on July 4, 2009.

7 Responses to “Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: Subarctic Waterbird Paradise, pt. 1”

  1. Very nice report with some incredible image. Nice trip one just can wish to be part of.

    Szimi

  2. ohhh… lucky, lucky man:) amazing pics! love the dancing swans – didn’t know they live so far in the North!

  3. Very nice trip and beautiful pictures !
    One of the place I am dreaming to go…

  4. Thanks for sharing your blog and your pictures with us. A fantastic voyage even for us at the computer screen.

  5. Thanks for sharing the notes and pictures of your trip. It looks like it was a fantastic opportunity.

  6. Your story and pictures are amazing. I feel like I was there by reading your diary from all looking at all your fantastic photos. Please keep us up to date on all your future travels and adventures Dave; so that we may live vicariously through you! I have read your diary over and over gain and I find it so interesting and relaxing. Thanks so much for sharing! I will ook forward to seeing you at one of your workshops in the future and if not at the tower! Happy Photo-shooting!

    Yours in birding,

    Karen Padbury ; HBMO.

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