Winter Marine Bird Survey - Part II

When the Birding Gets Tough, the Tough Get...More Hand Warmers

Part Two

A flock of Steller's eiders
The data collected on this survey helps maintain accurate population counts for Alaska's  threatened Steller's eider. USFWS Photo/L. Whitehouse

Day 3: To Drink or Not to Drink. (Or to Just Fall into the Drink Entirely.)

I woke at 6:45 am with a screaming thirst. My lips and tongue were shriveled like prunes and my eyeballs felt like they’d been peeled. I sheepishly recalled my boss’s admonitions to “hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!” But here was my dilemma: if I drank water now, I’d have to expel every last drop before stuffing this sausage into her casing. Potty breaks out there were few and far between. And, when the boat got to bouncing on the waves….well, adult diapers suddenly took on a certain comforting appeal.

Today, Mary and I would be tag-teaming data collection duties. After spending last evening matching bird names with their codes on the Toughbook (“HADU!”- harlequin duck, “EMGO!” – emperor goose, “BLOY!” – black oystercatcher) I felt up to the task...or so I thought. I declared war on the cold as I got dressed, stuffing hand warmers wherever it seemed prudent. I was as ready as I could be.

Fortunately our weather had improved – no spitting rain or sleet. The sun even hinted at coming out at times. It was going to be a good day on the water. And it was, mostly. As we pulled into cove after cove, nature proffered its riches. We spied wolves running along a misty beach and laughed as bull sea lions barked and roared warnings from their rocky perch. The largest one heaved himself up to the highest point for greatest effect, puffing up and flexing like a muscle man on the beach. We marveled at the gorgeous markings of a flock of Steller’s eiders; a bird whose numbers, until recently, have suffered precipitous declines for decades. We watched flocks of cheeky rock sandpipers tucked securely into crevices just out of reach of the churning water, as if taunting the waves. What did they have to worry? All they need do was launch their tiny, fist-like bodies and fly off for calmer shores.
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Watch what a raft of Steller sea lions did when they saw one of the skiffs! Experiences like these reveal the character and intelligence of these amazing marine mammals. Sadly, their western populations are endangered. Surveys such as this help wildlife management agencies understand their needs and better protect them.

Mary recorded the first transect, and then it was my turn. I prepared myself. Assume proper position. Remove (reluctantly) right-hand glove. Plug GPS into computer. Turn on GPS – no, not before turning on the computer! Start again. Turn on computer. Turn on GPS. Wipe moisture off screen. Slip glove back on for one blessed second while computer reboots. Remove glove. Open file. Call “on transect!” and be ready for action.

Things went surprisingly smoothly and I was grateful for my earlier practice session. I was having fun! And I was contributing to the expedition!

And then the waves hit. The tiny skiff bounced and heaved, dousing us with a cold spray. I bumped along with it, the computer balancing precariously on my lap. Such difficulties were apparently irrelevant to the birds, however, and the bird counters. The sightings kept coming, “Two arctic terns on the water!” “Five glaucous-winged gulls flying!” I was astounded at the ability of my crew mates, one of which was simultaneously steering us skillfully through this rough patch. My fingers were numb and wet, my arm had gone spastic with the rocking of the boat and it took everything I had to hit the intended keys. And still they called out sightings, “Three BAGOs (translate: barrow’s goldeneye) on the water!” “Two black scoters on the water”! “One harbor seal on land!” Thankfully, Mary was close at hand, coaching me along and ensuring I pressed the right keys.

Researchers on skiff
The author prepares to record data while Brian steers the skiff, Deb watches for wildlife and Mary snaps action photos. NPS Photo/M. Hake
Once things settled down, we headed for a protected bit of shoreline to eat lunch and take care of other necessary bodily needs. I was really ready for this.

But nature wasn’t done toying with me yet. As I prepared to step off the skiff, I remembered my not-entirely-waterproof boots. I waited for just the right moment in an attempt to keep them as dry as possible. And then, I jumped. As my foot hit the rock I recalled, too late, that these particular boots were rather slippery. Before I knew it I was on my back in the rushing tide. Some part of me really wanted to just let it be - to stop fighting and relax into the soothing waves. But a firm hand, attached to someone with a better idea, soon appeared before my eyes. I grabbed on and was yanked to my feet. Thanks to my co-worker’s swift reaction, I was still dry under my Mustang suit. My feet would be blocks of ice for the rest of the day. But aside from that, and the soggy hand warmers, looking distressingly like tiny diapers, periodically dropping off of my person, I was just fine. And who knows, I thought, maybe I even gained a little “street cred.”

We’ve all ended up on our backs in the intertidal at one time or another.” Dan Esler; USGS Wildlife Biologist

Back on the Dream Catcher that evening I pondered my experiences in this, my first Winter Marine Bird Survey. So many times for so many hours on this trip I had been miserably, unspeakably cold. And yet, as I gazed out over the austere mountains of Geographic Harbor, I found myself thinking, “I can’t wait to do this again.”

Our last day would entail surveying a few more transects and returning the spruced up wildlife cameras to their mounts. There were few birds about and I recall very little from that day. One memory has stayed with me, however. As our skiff captain announced the last transect of the trip, I pulled out my water bottle, buried deep in my dry sack for the most of 4 days. I turned the lid, opened my throat, and allowed myself a long, luxurious gulp.

Katmai National Park & Preserve

Last updated: October 26, 2021