Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Search of the Gray-headed Chickadee

A Float Trip in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge
June 2009
(Bird and wildlife photos by Nancy Bell, text and scenic photos by Chuck Bell)

Sunday, June 16
Our small group met our guides from Wilderness Birding Adventures at a B&B in Fairbanks. It was good to see Bob Dittrick and Aaron Lang again after 5 years.  Neither had changed much.  Aaron felt I might not have enough warm clothing, so he gave me a heavy pair of fleece pants and a jacket.  We also got our hip boots and life jackets and each a large river dry bags to put all of our gear into.  They gave us a briefing on what life would be like on the river, and then we walked up to an Italian restaurant, where we got Cesar salads for an outrageous price.  When we got back to the B&B we packed our river things into the big dry bags that Bob had given us and readied our regular luggage to be left at the B&B. 

Monday, June 15
We were up early and took our last shower for a week.  The Wright Air terminal was bustling with activity as several small Cessna Caravans were readied for scheduled departures to remote villages, generally accessible only by air.  When our group was all assembled, we put our dry bags and backpacks on a trolley where they were rolled over to a scale and weighed.  Bob and Aaron came up with more gear in addition to the rafts and other gear that they had delivered there the night before.  Our 9 am flight held eight of us plus an Athabascan woman going home to Arctic Village.  We flew over wilderness for 1 ½ hours.  We looked down on the many braids of the Yukon River, which was about the only visible landmark for the entire trip, as forest gave way to more and more tundra.  The airstrip at Arctic Village was gravel, which had been flown in by C-130 Hercules a few years ago at an unbelievable cost of $10 million.  There is no road access to this area, and the few vehicles we saw were also brought in by Hercules.  Arctic Village is just a collection of small houses on the Chandler River.  It is all Athabascan and can't be more than about 200 people.  It sits at the south side of the Brooks Range foothills.

On arrival in Arctic Village, the plane was met by a pickup truck and a few ATV’s.  Our bush pilot, Kirk, was there waiting for us with his Cessna 185.  The small plane held 3 passengers and gear in the back.  We went in with Bob and a lot of gear on the first flight.  We crossed into the Brooks Range, following valleys rather than going higher.  We crossed over the divide at Carter Pass and dropped down to the upper reaches of the Marsh Fork to our put-in point.  We landed on an open patch of tundra, certainly nothing that could remotely be called an airstrip.  Bob tied a piece of plastic to a small bush so Kirk had something of a wind sock for the next landings.  We off-loaded quickly, and Kirk went back for more of us.  He made 4 trips in all.  

We set up our tent among the flowers of the tundra, had lunch, and Chuck fished the riffles and pools of the river but to no avail.  Part of the river was still covered with massive sheets of ice over 3 feet thick.  Every so often we would hear a loud crack and then a loud splash as a hunk of ice broke off and crashed into the water.  The broad cut edge of the ice was streaked with icy whites and blues, reflecting the light and water.  We chased cheeky Arctic Ground Squirrels away from our gear.  They seemed to have a great fondness for chewing rubbery and spongy things.  We watched a herd of Dall's Sheep on a distant hill, first appearing as white dots and then becoming sheep as we used our binoculars. Finally Aaron came with the 2 large river rafts in the last load which we pumped up with a fairly efficient hand pump that looked like an old-fashioned bike tire pump.  
Aaron made burritos for dinner, then we went for a hike in search of the Gray-headed Chickadee at a small stand of trees about a mile down river.  The temperature was very nice, not too cool or hot.  We sat down and waited about 20 minutes by a nest hole that had been used in previous years, but no chickadees appeared.  

The views coming back were spectacular.  A vocal American Golden Plover called and tried to lure us away from a probable nest.  We appreciated the earnest effort and walked away.   

American Golden Plover
While we had a few sprinkles in the course of the day, the sky cleared around dinner time and the sun was still shining brightly at 11 pm.  At dinner time, we watched through a scope as a grizzly bear with 2 cubs moved slowly along a hillside across the river about 4 miles away.  We finally turned into our tents after a very long and exciting day.  It was odd to still see the sun glowing through the material of our tent.  Nancy finally put her head into the sleeping bag where it was dark. 

Tuesday, June 16
We spent a long time packing up, topping up the air in the rafts, etc., and finally got on the river at 11 am.  All the procedures were new to us and we had a lot to learn.  We were instructed how to use the paddles (they are not oars!).  We always wore our life vests.  Four clients sat along the inflated rim of each boat with Bob or Aaron in the stern acting as rudder and paddle captain, calling directions to the rest of us.  “Paddle forward, paddle backward, left forward, right backward…”  It took a while for the group to become coordinated.

On several occasions we had to push the rafts over gravel bars, and on one of them, Nancy had the raft slip out from under her as she tried to reboard after pushing it into fast moving water and she went down in the river.  The current was quite strong and Nancy could not get her feet under her.  Bob tried to grab her but slipped himself and let go of her.  By this time, they were both in deep water, and Bob finally managed to get hold of her and they both climbed back into the raft.  Nancy was shaking more from adrenalin than cold.  Bob pulled the raft into an eddy and let her calm down, we then pulled over to the shore and everyone got out so Nancy and Bob could recoup.  We walked down the bank a ways where the other raft's folks were out birding.  We enjoyed a singing Arctic Warbler, Yellow Warbler and Gray-cheeked Thrush.  By this time Nancy was fully recovered, and we reboarded and continued our journey down river pushing across more gravel bars.  We stopped for a gourmet lunch on the bank, and Nancy got out of her wet clothes putting on whatever dry clothes she had in her day pack.  It was just a small gravel bar and Nancy used Chuck as a privacy screen while changing her clothes.  Fortunately, the sun was out and it was quite warm.  Most of her clothes dried rather quickly.  Then, back to the rafts, and a lot of in and out as we crossed lots of gravel bars on this upper stretch of the river.  

We got to Tit Creek by about 3:30 pm, off-loaded the rafts and set up our tents in a stand of willows that had been severely browsed by Arctic Hares, which seemed to be everywhere.  (We later learned that this was a very good year for the hares, which seem to have a cycle of expansion and contraction.  Their expansion usually leads to an expansion of lynx and fox the following year.)  We had a very nice rice pasta for dinner -- the whole group was learning that gluten free food is just fine!  After dinner it still feels like the middle of the afternoon since the sun is still quite high and so we went for a long walk upstream to a grove of trees where the Gray-capped Chickadees had nested in previous years. 

We waited in vain at a couple of old nest holes, and finally we found the third one, in the upper reaches of the tree grove, to be occupied.  A pair of chickadees was feeding young.  We really enjoyed watching them.  

 Along the way we also found a Common Redpoll nest.  Redpolls were the most common bird we saw on the trip.  We returned to camp at 10:45 pm and turned in.  We both took Nyquil -- Chuck for a developing cold and Nancy to help get to sleep in the broad daylight of this arctic summer's night.

Wednesday, June 17
After breakfast, Nancy went out with half our group to revisit the chickadee nest and take pictures.  Along the way they were surprised by a chocolate-colored Wolf which they saw at a distance of about 30 yards.  The wolf merely trotted across the broad dry gravel stream bed, pausing a few times to look at them.  They were all so thrilled that no one even thought to pick up their camera!  Chuck stayed behind.  He clearly had come down with a bad cold.  Chuck did help break down camp as well as sit for a delightful restful time along the river bank. 

Nancy returned to camp elated with the chickadee photos she took and the wolf sighting.  We had lunch, then finished packing the rafts and headed downstream.  Today we had less pushing over gravel bars, as there was more water in the river, but we came to one place where the river's main channel went under ice.   We had to drag the rafts through a long stretch of willow-studded gravel bar.  The ice at the end of this stretch would have been very dangerous but we pulled the rafts through it with long lines attached to bow and stern.  We worked our way on down the river to a very nice campsite.  While on the river we saw a cow Moose with her calf running along the river bank.  At the campsite there was a lovely creek nearby and Nancy took a very cold bath in ankle-deep water.  She even washed her hair.  It felt great to be clean.   Aaron and Bob made a Greek stew with shellfish, and then we went for short hike in search of Smith's Longspur, which we didn't find.  It was really hard to convince yourself that you should go to sleep, even at 11 pm, with the sun still shining, but we were tired enough that we both fell asleep fairly soon after crawling into our tent.

Thursday, June 18
We got up at 6:30 am.  Chuck was the first one out of his tent and he figured out by now the various details of making coffee, so he made a pot for the other early risers.  We had cereal for breakfast.  Then, we two packed up our gear and took down our tent and then headed over to a likely area in search of Smith's Longspur.  We hiked all the way through the area, then Chuck headed up the hill and Nancy down toward the river's edge to work our way back.  At about this time, the others fanned out across the same bog (the longspur nests in very wet, boggy tundra), and we joined them.  But no longspurs were to be had.

Dall Sheep
We returned to camp, pumped up and loaded the rafts and headed down a short easy stretch of river, skirting an ice shelf.  We then hit the rapids and our raft got stuck on the first big rock we came to.  Bob had hesitated too long to decide which side of the rock we should go around, and we high-sided with the raft pitching up on its side at a 45-degree angle.  The rock was the size of a car and we crashed into it at the full speed of the fast current.  Nancy was sitting at the impact point and much later Chuck noticed a huge bruise on her lower back and hip.  Since Nancy was on the top side of the raft she easily scrambled onto the rock, but Chuck was on the bottom and as he tried to climb over the tall pile of gear in the middle of the raft, his legs dropped into the water and filled his boots.  With an adrenalin-fueled Nancy pulling him, he managed to slide over the pile of gear and both he and Nancy got out of the raft onto the top of the rock, where we all worked to free the raft from the grips of the current.  One side of the raft was under water and water flooded into the entire boat.  There we hung on the rock, holding the raft with all of our might, trying to figure out exactly what to do.  Eliza did a herculean job of holding, then pulling the bow of the raft around, and with our pulling and rocking, the raft began to ease into the current and the low side rose above the river and the boat started to level out.   We all tumbled into it and resumed our wild ride down through the 4 miles of rapids, with no further problems.  We were elated with our success!  Since all the gear was tied extremely well into the boat nothing was lost except a small water bottle that someone had put on the floor of the raft.  The folks in the second raft were aghast at our predicament and quickly pulled to the nearest shore.  They watched with baited breath and were ready to launch their boat to retrieve any of us if we fell into the current.  Too bad we don’t have a video of the adventure!  As we neared the end of the rapids, we pulled over to shore for our next campsite.  This was a scrub-willow and gravel bar campsite, not as pleasant as the flower-filled tundra campsites.  Chuck was still soaked, and we spread everything out to dry, but then it started raining getting everything even wetter.  We should have brought things in but we didn't think it would rain very long.  How wrong we were.   A steady rain set in, and while we huddled in our tent to stay dry, Bob and Aaron constructed an ingenious shelter out of an upturned raft and a very big tarp.  They taped together 2 paddles to make several uprights to hold up the shelter.  When the rain finally subsided a bit, Aaron had a nice cup of hot soup for everyone as well as some cheese and fixings for a very late lunch.

During a lull in the rain Nancy headed off with a group led by Bob to see a waterfall in a cave plus a place where chickadees had nested in previous years in old Cliff Swallow nests.  Chuck stayed behind in camp.  His cold still had him very low on energy, and the raft spill and the wet cold had taken a fair amount of spark out of him.  He helped Aaron dig the "growler" (the WBA word for latrine).  When Aaron departed to join the group, Chuck worked on drying the coats and clothes that had gotten so wet during the day.  Nancy was one of only two of our group who actually went all the way into the cave to see the beautiful waterfall.  It was necessary to wade in skin-numbing thigh-deep water to see this waterfall. They took off their shoes and rolled their shorts as high as they would go for this adventure.  As their bare feet felt for safe passage on the large slippery river rocks the three of them held hands and ducked into the cave.  The water fell high from the top of the cave and swirled around smooth rock walls as it cascaded into a large pool.  Mist was everywhere and for a few special minutes they forgot about the ice cold water as they watched this spectacle.  While they were in the cave, Will stayed down the trail and spotted a chickadee. They all observed two birds taking food to young, apparently at a nest tucked into a rock crevice, though they couldn't actually see the nest.  The chickadees are tree cavity nesters so using a rock cavity would be an important change indicating the chickadees were flexible enough to adapt to a mostly treeless habitat.  Aaron was hoping to get another chance to watch this chickadee on the 2nd raft trip to follow right after ours. 

Dinner was a big pot of rice and beans with sausage, and then la pièce de résistance, chocolate-dipped apricots for dessert!  The food was always imaginative and delicious and everyone looked forward to the meals to see what it would be this time.

Friday, June 19
It rained on and off a good part of the night, and everyone got up relatively late.  We were among the first to rise at 7 am.  While we were finishing breakfast, we watched two gray Wolves for many minutes as they moved at an easy pace across the mountain slope on the other side of the river.  We were slow in breaking camp and finally got on the river at noon.  The river had risen a bit with all the rain, and we had a very easy float even through some more rapids.  We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar next to a gushing spring that tumbled down to the river in a moss-lined small waterfall.  We watched a pair of American Dipper feed young at their dome-shaped nest next to the waterfall.

Smith's Longspur
We continued down river in the afternoon, stopping at the confluence of Salisbury Creek, where we fanned out across a bog and turned up a nesting female Smith's Longspur.  This was a life bird for both of us.  We then rafted a little further on to our next campsite, where the Marsh Fork meets the main stem of the Canning River.  The wind was strong and it was cold.  We found a tent site that was at least partially sheltered from the wind and set up our tent on the bumpy surface of the tundra.  We helped set up the kitchen in the shelter of an upturned raft down on a small gravel bar.  Aaron and Bob made a delicious pesto pasta with sausage, salad and garlic bread.  We huddled out of the wind behind the raft and enjoyed our dinner.  We turned in relatively early, at 9:30 pm.  But we found it hard to go to sleep in the bright daylight.

Saturday, June 20
During the night, we heard precipitation making a plopping sound as it hit our tent, and we awoke on this day before the summer solstice to find our tent and the ground covered with at least 2 inches of very, very wet snow.  The air was cold and damp.  A walk behind the tent revealed wolf tracks in the snow only 10 feet away from our door!  

Not surprising, it was a slow morning's start, complicated by the fact that the river had risen enough to flood what had been our kitchen area.  A new one was established, and we had a welcome hot (gluten-free) porridge.  We then began the long task of packing up and loading the rafts, using a human chain to pass our gear down the snow-covered bank to the wet black rocks along the water's edge.  We had the rafts in an eddy, and we had to walk them upstream around the rocky point with lines to a position where we could board them and then enter the main stream of the river through some fierce paddling.  The other stream we had to avoid went right under an ice shelf.  We succeeded in this difficult maneuver, and we set off on an easy ride through this very full river.  Normally, this section is very difficult with lots of gravel bars and multiple small channels, but with all the water, we just cruised right down with only a minimum of paddling.  There is also usually a strong upriver headwind in this section, but we had a tailwind, making our descent even easier.  It was a cold day and we all wore long underwear, pants, rain pants, hip boots, several layers on top plus raincoats.  Over all of that we wore our life jackets and neoprene gloves.  We were now in the Canning River main stream, and pushing down toward the north end of the Brooks Range, resulting in slight changes to the ecology.  Accordingly, we picked up a few new bird species we had not seen up the Marsh Fork, including a superbly plumaged American Golden-Plover.  Thankfully, it had not snowed at all down here.  We had clearly camped at the low edge of the snow line.

We arrived at our destination at 4 pm -- a big gravel bar airstrip, which would be our take-out point.  Fortunately, it was not under water.  We camped on the gravel bar among the scraggly willows, which was really an island, as there was a fast-moving channel between the bar and the main bank.  Shortly after we arrived, as we were unloading the rafts, a small herd of Caribou, with two magnificent bucks, appeared on the bluff above us.  We set up our tents, and the two of us took a nap -- Nancy in the tent and Chuck out on his dry bag in the sun.  The weather had cleared, and the sun was strong, but a cold wind began blowing hard from the north.  Dinner was an Asian curry with rice -- delicious once again!  We helped with camp chores and then retired to our tent, our last day on the river at an end (even though the sun will not set on this mid-summer night).

Sunday, June 21
We awoke to the news that the river was up considerably from the snow melt upstream.  Eliza had noticed at 4 am that the boats were floating and awakened Bob and Aaron.  They moved the rafts to higher ground.  Of more concern, the airstrip was now under water.  Bob and Aaron put sticks at the water's edge at 4 am and at 8 am to gauge the river level.  It appeared to have peaked at about 5 am and continued to drop all day.  By late afternoon, the airstrip was again out of water.

We had an outstanding breakfast of scrambled eggs with veggies, sausage and fried potatoes.  Then we took one of the rafts across a channel between us and the mainland, hiked up onto the bluff and onto slope after slope of pristine tundra.  There are very few places in North America that are this untrammeled by man.  We were birding all the way, including at two lakes.  Nancy spent hours in the boggy areas photographing brilliant male Smith's Longspurs, and a stunning American Golden-Plover.  The Longspurs were elusive and could sneak through the tall grass like mice and disappear or suddenly take flight and go much too far away.  However Nancy really wanted a good photo and persisted to follow the birds over the uneven tundra and through the wet bogs.  As we ate our lunches on a knoll overlooking one of the lakes, two young Caribou came by and had a good look at us before trotting on.  Tim, the physical anthropologist, picked up an old stone tool from the knoll and showed us how it was flaked sometime in prehistory.  It was a marvelous hike on this summer solstice day but walking across the boggy, tussock landscape was tiring.  We now had matched previous bird count record of 54 species for this trip. 

Once back at the campsite Nancy found a private little place and again took an ice cold bath in the river and rinsed out her hair.  It felt so good. 

Monday, June 22
We awoke to find the river up again.  The airstrip where Kirk was to land today was covered in water.  Bob got on the satellite phone and put Kirk on hold and filled in Lisa, who was bringing another group to Arctic Village for another trip.  As we ate breakfast, we watched the river level drop rapidly but it still had a long way to go.  We had several pots of coffee, then cereal and passed the time away chatting and reading.  The sky was sunny and the temperature was about 60F but a strong south wind kept the mosquitoes at bay and kept us cool.  Aaron spotted a Yellow Wagtail from the "growler" and called to us as he pulled up his pants.  We all rushed over to see this 55th species of our trip, setting a new record.

Then in an effort to hasten the drying of the airstrip, we all donned our hip boots and set about damming the upstream end of the gravel bar and digging drainage channels at the lower end.  We spent hours dragging willow brush and large rocks to create the dam.  We had 1 small shovel, one plastic bucket and one metal bucket for tools.  We repeatedly filled the plastic bucket with sand to fill in the holes in our make-shift dam.  We finally finished our task the best we could and the airstrip was drying out rapidly.  We had lunch and finally at 3 pm our bush pilot Kirk came flying down river and with the grace of a true bush pilot put his little plane down onto the gravel bar, with black mud flying in the air.  

He first took Bob, the two rafts, and a lot of gear up to the put-in point to await the next group.  He then returned for Tim, Eliza and Bernie, along with more gear, for the flight to Arctic Village.  It took about 2 hours round trip, so we took our time breaking camp, and then we sat in the sun and read.  We were on the next departure, with Chris.  We flew back up the Marsh Fork, retracing our route.  It was very interesting to view from above that which we had paddled on below.  Kirk estimated that we had floated about 40 miles in total.  We passed over the put-in point and looked down at where Bob and the first contingent of a 12-day Nature Conservancy trip were setting up camp.  Chuck had a good chat with Kirk through the headsets.  After dropping us in Arctic Village, and picking up the remaining TNC travelers, he had one more trip for Aaron, Jan and Will and the remainder of the gear.  Luckily for us, Wright Air had decided to hold an aircraft for us, and we waited by the side of one of its Cessna Caravans, along with pilot Brian, who had flown humanitarian missions in many places around the world, including in Papua New Guinea.  Chuck rode co-pilot back to Fairbanks, and had fun with the pilot swatting mosquitoes that had come aboard at Arctic Village and had collected on the inside of the windshield.

Bob’s wife Lisa was at Arctic Village and had sandwich fixings for us.  We also had a nice chat with Aaron's new wife, Robin, who is a fisheries biologist working with the commercial halibut catch in Homer.  She was waiting for Kirk's last flight to the put-in point to join Aaron and the TNC group. 

We finally got to Fairbanks at 11 pm, and Brian gave us a ride to our B&B in his truck -- what a nice pilot!  We took desperately needed showers and fell into bed (OMG – the sun is STILL shining!)

Extra thoughts:  All the clients on this trip were interesting and friendly people.  Nancy was the youngest and most were around Chuck’s age.  We all pitched in to help do all the camp chores, wash the dishes, pump up the rafts and load them.  In fact, Bob said that on some previous trips clients expected to be waited on and sometimes he and Aaron were still doing camp chores at midnight!  We all thought helping out was part of the experience and could not imagine others letting Bob and Aaron do it all!  Everyone had previous wilderness camping experience and took all the weather extremes in stride.  Everyone was happy and not once did anyone grumble about anything!  Due to Bob’s clear information before the trip, we all had the proper clothing and the proper gear to be safe and comfortable.  Lisa did an outstanding job of planning and preparing the food and we were more than well fed.  There was even red and white wine at every dinner.  At breakfast we had real coffee and not the awful instant stuff.  There were huge bags of nuts and M&M’s for snacks as we loaded the boats each day.  We had reindeer sausage and a variety of delicious cheeses, including Brie.  They packed tons of gluten-free food.  Bob and Aaron were fun and easy going and we all had a great time together. 

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