Bristol Bay is home to more than 190 species of birds. From the tideland estuaries to the high tundra, the landscape is dominated by bird life. There are ducks on every pond and gulls on every sandbar — usually.
This year seems different. A walk across the tundra in early June found the willow ptarmigan population at a normal level (albeit in a small sample size), but there weren’t many other tundra nesters.
Shorebirds are normally quite abundant in the open habitat near the coast. Whimbrels, red phalaropes and lesser yellowlegs are among the more common. I saw none of these birds on a three- or four-mile walk.
The normal gull population also seemed to be missing. Shallow ponds that would normally host a dozen glaucous-winged gull nests were silent. An occasional mew gull coasted overhead, but even these common inland inhabitants were scarce.
The tidelands were also vacant. Whimbrels and red phalaropes, the most common of the mudflat-feeding shorebirds, are non-existent. It isn’t like there are less than usual — there are none. I spent a week on the Kvichak estuary just above the Libbyville Flats, a few miles above the town of Naknek, and did not see a single bird of either species.
Whimbrels are the most noticeable shorebird in this area. The Alaska population, which accounts for much of the worldwide population, numbers around 100,000. Several thousand of these birds, which winter as far away as Chile, congregate and feed through the summer months just above the old cannery at Libbyville. A number of them breed inland on the tundra and spend low tide foraging insects and small crustaceans. The whimbrel flight of several thousand birds, chased from the flats by the incoming tide, is a twice-daily occurrence.
Snow melt in the mountains has been late, leading to lower water temperatures, but green-up at lower elevations came early with record warmth in May. Normally whimbrels show up in May, nest the first few days of June and hatch their chicks by the third week of the month. There must be a few on the adjoining tundra, but they are invisible.
Red phalaropes, normally the most numerous shorebird in the Bay, are also absent. They are usually found on almost every coastal pond. They flock to the water’s edge during low tide to feed on insect larvae and scud.
Phalaropes are interesting birds. They spend half of their time wading and racing along at the edge of the water, seemingly always in an incredible hurry. They swim frantically in circles, pecking at the water as often as two times per second. A friend of mine used to call them “quick-necked mosquito glommers.” Indeed, they must eat an amazing number of mosquito larvae.
The males do almost all of the chick-rearing chores while the female is off gallivanting. Thus the males need to hurry to get back and feed the chicks. Fortunately, the young ones are on their own in a couple of weeks so the poor guy can get some rest.
The females will breed with several males and lay as many as four clutches of four eggs each during a season. Those 16 eggs will be more than double her body weight.
There are normally several thousand glaucous-winged gulls resting on the sandbars of the Naknek River at low tide. Granted, fishing has yet to be in full swing, but the gulls have timed the start of the salmon fishery for generations. There are some gulls, but far, far fewer than the usual 10,000 to 20,000 that are here for the peak of the sockeye run. Whether they are feeding elsewhere and will return to take advantage of the processing waste remains to be seen. I do know they are conspicuously absent at their usual nesting locales.
Where are the birds? The likely culprit seems to be cold water. The small mudflat dwellers, crustaceans, worms and such are undoubtedly affected by water temperature.
However, the tundra ponds seem to be closer to a normal temperature and there is no doubt that insects have benefited by the wet inland which was the beneficiary of a good snow pack. The mosquitoes are certainly plentiful.
Shorebirds in particular are the hallmark species of Alaska summers. We are the breeding home of at least half of the shorebird population in North America. Seventy-odd species and 7 million to 12 million shorebirds visit Alaska during summer months. More than five million pass through the Copper River Delta and possibly the same number on the Yukon/Kuskokwim Delta. Bristol Bay carries an impressive number also.
Where are they? The summer will tell the story.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.
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