Columns 2006

The birds are leaving

I remember going down a river in China back in 1983 and turning to my sister and saying, “What’s missing here?” Something seemed odd or wrong.

It took a few minutes for me to figure it out. There were no birds flying, no sounds echoing from their songs and conversations. It was eerily silent.  Unfortunately, the birds came later on a plate.  Little song birds roasted whole and eaten whole, bones and all.  My sister spent a lot of time in China being a vegetarian.

The kind of silence I found on that river in China is a large part of the Arctic winter. If it weren’t for the sounds of cars or snow machines, the silence would be total except for the occasional distant thud of snow settling on the tundra.

Two things meant that spring had arrived up north.  The whaling boats came down from their winter racks and the snowbirds returned.  You knew the birds were back the morning you woke up and heard their song outside your window.  From silence to their song, suddenly the frozen world of the north would come alive with a sense of renewal second only to that engendered by the return of the sun.

By the time spring turned into summer, the birds were back big time. Alaska’s North Slope is one of the biggest breeding grounds for migratory birds in the world.  The tundra is transformed by their presence.  Camping in the winter means a silence that absolutely envelops you like another dimension closing in.  Camping in the summer means going to sleep to the sound of loons and tundra swans that inhabit any body of water they can find. There were geese, ptarmigan, and snowy owls as well as a huge variety of ducks and seagulls. We even have seagulls that turn pink when they come to the land north of Barrow to mate.

By the time I left Barrow, ravens had taken up full time residence in town. The first year a pair stayed, we were constantly startled to see something flying around in the middle of winter.  They seemed to survive by finding warmth in the heating vents that sprang up all over town as the pipeline boom made it’s presence felt in Barrow through new housing and new commercial buildings.  Eventually it was four ravens, then six that over wintered, and soon we became blas´┐Ż about their presence.

You knew winter was drawing near when the great migrations south started.  I was walking my dog on Fresh Water Lake road on a day when there was a low cloud cover over Barrow. Suddenly, the gray sky seemed to get even darker. I looked up and found what seemed like a sky full of ducks flying over my head. They flew low to get below the cloud cover and they seemed to be flying in absolute silence.  I instinctively ducked my head (no pun intended) because they felt close enough to have their wings hit me on the down swing.  When they reached the coast a little distance away, they turned left and were gone.

Both my dog and I stood there and watched the flock in awe.  I knew the length of the journey in front of them and was amazed once again at the stamina and strength they would need to accomplish it.  Talk about having the ability to focus on a goal till it’s achieved!  Is there a better example of this anywhere?

Here in Anchorage we watch the geese take off south, giving us the same message they give to our more northern friends. Winter is coming. But since we tend to be a bit more removed from nature than people who live in the bush, Bird TLC is hosting a Bye Bye Birdie event this Saturday from 11 AM till 5 PM at the old Rabbit Hutch property off Old Seward Highway above Potter Marsh.  It will give us city folks a chance to meet and greet some of the birds that call Alaska home all or part of the year and a chance to give a final salute to those heading south for the winter. There will be hands-on education activities for the whole family, lots of live bird presentations from TLC’s vast array of ed birds and a raffle that gives you a chance to win an eagle release.  And did I mention that, except for the raffle, it’s all free?

So grab the family and head on over to the old Rabbit Hutch site this Saturday, have some fun and wave goodbye to the birds…who apparently are smarter than we are in that they know to head south for the winter while we just sit here and put snow tires on our cars.