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Birdwatching at the Copper River Delta in Alaska

Western Sandpipers. Photo by Liron Gertsman
Western Sandpipers. Photo by Liron Gertsman

Alaska is one big state, and what I haven’t seen of it is a lot. Every student knows the basic facts: That tiny Rhode Island could fit into its 600,000 square miles 425 times. That 16 of the highest peaks in the United States are within its borders. And that the state’s 6,640-mile coastline is longer than the coastlines of all the other states combined. Stretched out and folded once, it would reach from Augusta, Maine, to Los Angeles and back again.

Set against so much space, even the largest contiguous wetland on the Pacific coast of North America can appear small, yet the Copper River Delta is anything but. A mosaic of ponds, intertidal sloughs, glacial streams, sedge marshes, alder and willow thickets, and mudflats, the Delta occupies more than 580 square miles, or about 700,000 acres, at the eastern edge of Prince William Sound, about 120 miles east of Anchorage. The picture-postcard peaks of the Chugach and Wrangell St. Elias mountain ranges rise to its north, and the wide Gulf of Alaska stretches to its south.

The Copper River itself is well known for the sockeye and much larger chinook salmon that swim up it each spring to spawn. When I visited Cordova in early May 2003, the harbor was bustling with activity as commercial fishermen in orange and yellow foul-weather gear readied their gillnet boats and bow-pickers for the first commercial opening of the season. Between mid-May and July, they would catch approximately 1.2 million sockeye and 49,000 chinook, quantities that speak volumes for the health and astonishing productivity of the watershed.

My wheels and eyes at the Alaganik Slough.
My wheels and eyes at the Alaganik Slough.

But I wasn’t there for the salmon, as tasty as they are. I was there to grapple with the concept of Alaska’s hugeness and wildness, to take part in a successful nature festival, and to see for myself what the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) calls “possibly the most important shorebird concentration site in the world,” for the Copper River Delta is as well known for migrating Dunlins and Western Sandpipers as it is for salmon. The entire Pacific race of Dunlins and virtually all of the world’s population of Western Sandpipers — between 450,00 and 600,000 Dunlins, and as many as 6.5 million Western Sandpipers — stop in the region each spring. In recognition of this fact, WHSRN in 1990 declared the Copper River Delta a reserve of not just regional or international, but hemispheric importance.

Shorebird workshop

The maiden Copper River Delta Shorebird Workshop, the forerunner of today’s Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, was held as part of the WHSRN dedication celebrations. It consisted of a two-night course on shorebirds and field trips and was attended by 30 townspeople. The 2003 festival ran for four nights, drew attendees from as far away as Hawaii, and featured a long list of activities: field trips to area hotpots, a parade of children wearing homemade bird masks, an art walk, a dinner party and spirited birdcall contest aboard the state ferry M/V Bartlett, a keynote address by Carl Safina, author of the book Eye of the Albatross, and workshops on shorebird identification.

The workshops were conducted by Paul Meyers, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, and Aaron Lang, co-author of the chapter on Cordova in the book A Birder’s Guide to Alaska. Paul and Aaron also headed up teams of crack birdwatchers who scoured the countryside from 10 p.m. Saturday to 10 p.m. Sunday in the Great Cordova Birding Challenge, a good-natured contest to find the most birds in a 24-hour period. Paul’s provocatively named team, Shake Your Buteos, edged Aaron’s Hard Corvids, 90 species to 88, but not for lack of effort by the Corvids. When Paul, his teammate Eric Quilty, and I drove out the Copper River Highway to the Alaganik Slough to scout for birds the day before, we found Red-necked Phalaropes, droopy-necked Red-throated Loons, Arctic and Aleutian Terns, and Aaron’s tent already pitched.

Stanley Senner, executive director of Alaska Audubon, was one of the first researchers to call attention to the area’s vital importance to shorebirds. “I have never before, nor since, had such a keen sense of the rhythm and spectacle of migration,” he wrote of his first visit to the Copper River Delta, in May 1975. “Although there were new birds to distract me — eerie calls of Varied Thrushes and Rufous Hummingbirds whizzing among the Sitka spruce — it was the mass movement of birds that was so captivating.”

The shorebirds, Senner and his colleagues revealed, come to the Delta for a simple reason: They need to refuel. Hungrily stabbing the mudflats with their bills, the rufous-backed, black-bellied Dunlins prey heavily on small bivalves known as Macoma. The clam is eaten by the shorter-billed Western Sandpipers too, but their diet also includes tiny crustaceans called amphipods, as well as larval insects and snails.

Other researchers later used radio transmitters attached to migrating Western Sandpipers to demonstrate that the Copper River Delta was not one of a kind, but one of a series of critically important coastal stopovers that include San Francisco Bay, Grays Harbor in Washington, the Fraser and Stikine River Deltas in British Columbia and southeastern Alaska, and Cook Inlet, on the west side of the Kenai Peninsula. Additional studies confirmed that the sandpipers’ primary migration route was along the Pacific Coast, that they spent the winter as far south as Mexico, Panama, and Peru, and that for many birds, the final breeding destination was the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta some 500 miles west of Cordova.

‘Dense, swirling clouds’

Senner described watching seemingly endless processions of Tundra Swans, Canada Geese, Northern Pintails, Sandhill Cranes, and “dense, swirling clouds of sandpipers.” When I made my first trip to Hartney Bay, shortly after high tide early in the morning on May 7, I had the pleasure of witnessing a similar spectacle.

Milo Burcham at Shag Rock in Prince William Sound.
Milo Burcham at Shag Rock in Prince William Sound.

Hartney Bay is located on the east edge of Orca Inlet, only a few minutes’ drive along Whitshed Road from town. Accompanied by wildlife photographer Milo Burcham, a subsistence wildlife biologist with the Forest Service and the president of the local Audubon chapter, and Kelley Weaverling, a onetime kayak guide on Prince William Sound and the former mayor of Cordova, I gazed upon a scene of abundant, wild life. Hulking Hawkins Island filled the western horizon. Rafts of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Long-tailed Ducks in dark breeding plumage floated in the glassy water before it, while Black-legged Kittiwakes and Glaucous-winged and Mew Gulls squealed overhead. Northwestern Crows mobbed a Northern Goshawk, a Belted Kingfisher dove off a nearby perch, and Golden-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows sang by the roadside.

Milo would later generously allow me to study Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murres, Marbled Murrelets, brilliantly colored Harlequin Ducks, and other waterbirds from the vantagepoint of his 18-foot skiff Bitterroot. Exploring the drowned, mountainous coastlines of Orca Inlet and the Sound, we found Black Oystercatchers sitting on nests at Shag Rock at Whitshed Point and watched a hoary marmot near a Black-legged Kittiwake colony in Boswell Bay, 15 miles south of Cordova.

As knowledgeable as he is amiable, Milo also took me to a secluded spot not far from the center of town where I was able to watch a favorite bird of mine, the American Dipper, wade across a frigid stream with its head held beneath the water. But now our focus was on shorebirds. Black-bellied Plover, American and Pacific Golden-Plovers, Semipalmated Plover, Black Oystercatcher, Whimbrel, Hudsonian Godwit, Ruddy and Black Turnstones, Surfbird, Semipalmated, Least, Baird’s, and Pectoral Sandpipers, and Short- and Long-billed Dowitchers are among the species seen in Hartney Bay, but this morning the mudflats were the domain of countless Western Sandpipers.

Surrounded by sandpipers

At Kelley’s suggestion, I walked down from the road and across the bay’s firm mud floor until I reached the point where the water covered the toes of my rubber boots. There, with groups of foraging sandpipers to my left and right, I set down my spotting scope and stood as quietly and as still as possible. Single-mindedly searching for food in the mud exposed by the receding waterline, the birds soon forgot about my presence, and the foragers to my left linked up with those to my right in the area between me and the shore. As the tide continued to pull the water farther from shore, the line of sandpipers progressively drew nearer. In minutes, they were chittering and squeaking within inches of my now dry boots. Moments later, to my delight, I was surrounded. But not for long.

All of a sudden, and for no reason that was apparent to me, all of the Western Sandpipers lifted as one into the air and commenced flying at breakneck speed parallel to shore. Shocked, I realized that my position in their midst as they were foraging now gave me a mid-stream view of their panicked flight, and the oncoming birds raced past me in a blur of flapping wings, like water flowing around a boulder. For a few thrilling seconds, I could do little more than stand my ground as thousands of sandpipers, a few Dunlins and a Black Turnstone among them, effortlessly veered to the right and left in front of me, sped past me at eye level, and then merged back into a seamless whole behind me. Continuing on in tight formation, the birds turned as one toward Hawkins Island and then wheeled around, the flock twisting and gyrating as one, flashing white and then brown, and then settling down far from where I stood.

The experience lasted only a few seconds. And it took place within view of town and only a short walk from where I had parked the giant Chevrolet Scottsdale pickup that would several times carry me out and back on the Copper River Highway, so it hardly qualified as an adventure by Alaskan standards. But the sandpipers’ headlong rush did fill me with a sense of wonder at the spectacle of migration, an excitement at being in the presence of something so large that it spanned not just states or countries, but continents, and it brought into sharper focus just what it was that lay in the Rhode Island-engulfing space beyond the mountains.

“A sense of the contemporary appearance of Alaska virtually requires inspection, because the civilized imagination cannot cover such quantities of wild land,” John McPhee wrote in 1976. “Imagine, anyway, going from New York to Chicago – or, more accurately, from the one position to the other – in the year 1500. Such journeys, no less wild, are possible, and then some, over mountains, through forests, down the streams of Alaska.”

Indeed, such journeys are still possible on the Copper River Highway, the waters of Orca Inlet, and the mudflats of Hartney Bay.

Chuck Hagner is the editor of BirdWatching magazine.

  Originally Published

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