Scoping the Tundra for Birds

A beautiful common redpoll.

by Ty Benally, USFWS

On Saturday morning of August 14, I joined Park Ranger Letitia Lussier and other birding enthusiasts in the parking lot at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. Despite the overcast gray skies and the weather in low 50s that morning, I was excited to go birding (short for birdwatching)!

Letitia is our birding guide who would lead us in and around Bethel to search for birds. She provided us an orientation about using the birding checklist to document our observations, the routes we would use, and that a spotting scope is available to view birds that are too far in distance to see with our binoculars. She emphasized that to participate safely, social distancing practices are used in which facemasks must be always worn, hand sanitizers and cleaning wipes are available, and windows on the vehicle must remain open.

We first arrived at a riverbank park at the end of Standard Oil Road. The park is elevated and overlooks the Kuskokwim River. I noticed the purple fireweed blooms nearby on the steep bank gently swaying in the breeze. Using our binoculars, we glassed either side of the riverbanks searching for birds. Then a small passerine flew out of the brush, perched in a nearby tree, and flittered through the leafy branches feeding on insects it could find.

In the scope view I saw a glimpse of its red cap before it flew away. Letitia explained that the bird is a Common Redpoll and that it prefers river habitat like this area. We moved onto our next birding site upriver.

We parked on First Avenue to view a large flock of gulls loafing on a sandbar spit on the other side of the Kuskokwim. On our side, river barges were docked along the stabilized riverbank. Letitia noted that the Arctic Terns were nowhere in sight; this is where she had seen them in earlier trips. I thought that the terns’ departure is a sure sign that fall is happening.

Viewing the sandbar from left to right, I glassed the Glaucous Gulls where most loafed at the end of the sand spit or nearby it in the river, few loafed on bridge where the spit connected to the shoreline, and fewer still on the main riverbank.

Letitia explained that for safety, most gulls prefer to loaf at the end of the spit. The fewer birds loafing on the bridge would react to escape an approaching predator, and in fleeing would awaken the others to escape to safety. That is an interesting narrative, I thought.

As I observed them in the scope view, I imagined a red fox exiting the alders to prey on them. It seemed logical that the birds on the bridge would alert the others. I observed the younger gulls on the bridge whose plumage had a mixed coloration of white and brown feathers rather than the white and grays seen on the adults.

Each would pick up a stick in its bill, hold it, jump with their wings spread out, drop it, and repeat those motions. Seeing that in alternating sequences across the covey, I said it is as if they were playing a game. “They’re playing a stick game!” Letitia said.

Before our trip, a refuge biologist had told Letitia that White-fronted Geese had been seen in the tundra around Bethel, so we packed back into the vehicle to go find them. We drove past the boat harbor activity where boaters either entered or departed from it.

Further down we passed the ponds that were on either side of the road, and while looking from the opened window for ducks, I said that I did not see any. Letitia said she noticed that, too, and said that the shorebirds were not around either. She said we might be able to see widgeon and grebes; although I looked, I did not see any in the open water nor in the small open niches within the sedges. These were more signs that it is fall. We continued towards Ridgecrest Road to reach the tundra.

We parked at an overlook where we enjoyed the panoramic view of thin black spruce stands in the bogs, and farther out still, dense alders, and the Kuskokwim. We glassed the field in search of White-fronted Geese. Letitia and another birder spotted them.

“They are walking and feeding in the sedges,” they said. “Do you see that mound far out in the wetlands? Look below it and to the left, and that’s where they are feeding” were the conversations between them two. Following them, I glassed the field eagerly to see them. Meanwhile, Letitia set up the spotting scope and glassed the field. “I found them!” she exclaimed.

We each took turns using it. Before I looked, she told me that the goose has a white band above its bill while she motioned her pointing finger across her nose to emphasize what I would see. In the center of the scope view, I saw a goose head that protruded above the sedges and the white band above its orange-colored bill. It looked directly at us while the others fed. We continued alternating turns to view them.

“I see Sandhill Cranes!” exclaimed Letitia. Just then, we heard crackling above us, and we all looked up anticipating an incoming crane to join the covet, instead it was a Common Raven. In the scope view, I saw a crane and its red crown that is the trademark of this tall bird. As it walked through the sedges feeding in the wetlands, its plumage of gray feathers distinguished its slender frame against the green foliage.

I still saw one goose that monitored us from afar. I shared that I had seen these species before, but this is my first time seeing them in Alaska. “Hooray!” said Letitia in celebration. In the Lower-48 I worked at hunting check stations to count harvested birds like these; I know that these species are hunted across the delta, too.

We packed up our gear and headed out to Arthur Dull Lake that is adjacent to the veteran’s center. In our scope views we saw Red-Necked Grebes asleep in the middle of the lake. Their heads were tucked in, and I could see their distinguished red throats. Letitia said that she enjoys seeing the grebe chicks because their plumage is black and white, but we would not see those this late in the season.

Further across the lake were ducks, and Letitia explained that those were American widgeon. I didn’t see these earlier on the tour, but here they were found. That concluded our tour.

As were returned to the visitor center, Letitia said she had seen American Robins on every trip until now. One of the birdwatchers, said she saw one feeding in in a birdfeeder in her yard that morning. So, a few are still around despite the decreasing temperatures and the golden colors slowly streaking across the tundra. These are more signs that fall has begun.

We arrived at the visitor center’s parking lot where we reviewed our birding checklists and compared our observations. The activity is fun and a great way to meet others and to learn about the birds in the area. I truly enjoyed this outing and would surely go again.

These birding sites and other locations in Bethel are part of the guided bird walks, which are offered now through September 10. Participants and Park Ranger Letitia meet on Saturday mornings at 10 AM at the refuge visitor center parking lot. Letitia has provided these visitor services as environmental education outreach for youth programs in Bethel. If you’re interested in participating, or to make a reservation, please contact the refuge at 543-3151, or [email protected]

Ty Benally is the Visitor Services Manager for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Note: The photos of birds that are provided below were not taken on this guided bird walk but are provided to showcase some of the birds that were seen.