Voices of Prince William Sound

There are a couple sounds I haven’t heard since I’ve moved to Alaska. I haven’t heard sirens. I haven’t heard the steady rumbling of the 60 freeway. I haven’t even heard an ice cream truck or the afternoon call of the elotero man. Alaska, instead, becomes a stage for the symphony of wildlife voices. Tatitlek is one of those stages.

IMG_0729

Tatitlek is a Native village with a population of 88 according to the last census. It rests, nestled just underneath Copper Mountain. Danielle and I were headed there to conduct community owl surveys and give presentations about the US Forest Service and the ecology of forests and owls. After an hour ride on the boat, expertly manned by Law Enforcement Official Andy Morse, we arrived at the dock. Jed Palmer, the Tatitlek school principal, welcomed us to Tatitlek and took us up the road to the school.

When we arrived at the school, the students were at lunch and so Danielle set up the laptop and presentations, while I set up the first activity. After the students came back from lunch and settled into their seats, Danielle, Andy and I introduced ourselves and what we did in our respective work. I spoke about my internship with Environment for the Americas and Andy talked about what it’s like to work in law enforcement for the US Forest Service. Danielle then dove into her presentation about different trees in Prince William Sound and the products and services trees provide to wildlife and also to humans. Midway through the presentation, Danielle paused and told the students they would now do an activity where they were to separate a pile of random products into two groups: made from a tree vs. not made from a tree. Some things were a little easier, such as a wooden pencil, but others were a little trickier, like the bag of marshmallows and tube of mascara. However, the students enjoyed the challenge of speculating what products might’ve come from a tree.

After Danielle’s presentation about forest ecology, I went up to the board to talk about owls.  When I got to the slide about the owl’s vision, I took out an owl mask showing how the owl’s tubular eyes are shaped, and the students had fun holding it up to their face to look through.  As I went through each slide about the owls that inhabit Prince William Sound, Danielle would play a sound clip of the owl calls. The students’ eyes widened with amazement when they heard the Barred Owl’s loud murmuring and the high – pitched too-too-too of the Northern Saw Whet. After the presentation, the students dissected owl pellets and made some amazing discoveries about the owls’ diets.

IMG_0759

As class began to come to an end at 3pm, we announced that Danielle and I were going to be doing an owl survey later that evening and they were more than welcome to join us. Since we had a few hours before the survey began, Danielle and I ventured outside to scout out some good locations to broadcast the owl calls. As we walked, I heard the Varied Thrush whistling in the afternoon breeze. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. The clouds had drifted away and it looked like the night was going to be clear. On our way back to the school, we passed through one of the two main streets and a couple of young kids and a big, friendly German Shepard ran up to us. A few of the kids recognized us from school and asked us how our walk went. We told them we had a good time on the trail looking for places to call for owls and that our owl survey was to begin soon.

Jed Palmer and Nichole Palmer, Jed’s wife and one of the teachers at the school, and their daughter, Chelsey, joined us for the owl survey.  We drove out on the road, past the Tatitlek airport, until we reached a trail that led into a forest.  We didn’t enter the forest, but walked out towards the edge.  We stood silent as the broadcast played.  2 minutes of silence, 1 minute of owl calls, 2 minutes of silence, 1 minute of owl calls. This was repeated for 15 minutes. It was getting pretty chilly as the broadcast reached the final track.  Sadly, we didn’t hear any calls at this location and it was past Chelsey’s bedtime so the Palmer family headed home.

Danielle and I, however, went on to the next location near the ferry dock. We didn’t hear any owl calls apart from the ones coming from our broadcast, but as we walked back off the trail, Danielle suddenly pointed to the night sky and said “Northern lights!”

It was true.  There was a single, undulating sliver of green across the sky. Not very strong, but a northern light nonetheless, which was still an amazing sight to behold. We stood in the dark, illuminated just by our headlamps, and watched the northern light roll and expand within the cluster of stars.  Bolstered by the sighting, we agreed to stay up a couple of hours to head out for a second owl survey.

It was nearing midnight when we headed out again.  We were near the ferry dock again, playing the broadcast when we heard what could’ve been our first owl call of the night.  Unfortunately, the owl was a hesitant owl and allowed us barely a second to hear him before he fell silent.  We noted it down anyways, but didn’t record it as a certain identification.

Even though, Danielle and I didn’t hear many owls, the students could hear our owl broadcasts from their homes. They knew it was our broadcasts, but they commented later that they now knew what owl voices to listen for in the night.

Rehearsal for owl calls

HONK

Immediately, we started giggling. We couldn’t help ourselves. The swan’s honk broke the steady silence of the dark, cold night. We were in a pull-off near Mile 10 on the Copper River Highway and I could see only a few stars speckled here and there in the sky. We had been standing for a while, straining our ears so that we could hear an owl. Our hopes weren’t high, but we dutifully continued with the broadcast, sending out owl calls into the night.

The forecast was good to see the northern lights, but the sky remained a patchwork of thick clouds. Danielle, her friend and I had ventured out that night to practice owl broadcasting. Danielle Rupp is an Americorps Member here in Cordova and she’s been tremendously helpful and friendly. She’s been here since September and has gotten to know the community remarkably well, which is great for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have learned about square dancing, dance classes and other fun events without her. I was also lucky to be able to work with her. In two days we were traveling to Tatitlek Village to conduct a community owl survey. I was thrilled at the chance to get out of the office.

I had spent most of my time in the office memorizing the different owl calls. I learned the easiest way of remembering these owls is by comparing their calls to something else. For instance, the Barred Owl’s call sounds like it’s loudly murmuring who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? The Northern Saw-Whet sounds like a truck backing up. By far, my favorite is the short-eared owl’s call. This little guy sounds nothing like an owl. Instead, this owl barks. When I heard the sound clip, I thought of my little dog back home in Los Angeles.

“Okay, what do we have to do first?” Danielle asked. We looked down at the papers and saw that we had to record the time, location, precipitation, snow cover, wind. The protocol was very similar to what I had learned during shorebird training.

I looked at my watch. “It’s 10:38pm.” This was the second site. We thought we heard something at the first location, but the call was too distant to tell for certain. We jumped out of the car and turned on the broadcast. After the Boreal Owl’s call on the broadcast, we heard the swan.

HONK

Giggling, I briefly wondered whether we had awoken the disgruntled swan, but then, all of a sudden, a different call.

too-too-too-too

I gasped and we all swiveled around to stare at the silhouetted trees.

too-too-too-too

Like a truck backing up, it was the call of the Northern Saw Whet. That was how I heard and identified my first owl in Alaska.

First day in Cordova, AK

As I flew farther away from Los Angeles and closer to the frigid temperatures of the north, I struggled to get my thoughts under control.  I was definitely excited about this internship, but there was a creeping sense of apprehension at the realization that I was flying to Alaska.  ALASKA.  At the next moment though, I’d be gripped by disbelief.  It was a long flight, to say the least.

It wasn’t until I caught a sight of the mountain ranges on the short 30 minute flight from Anchorage to Cordova that I felt a sudden burst of joy.  From my window, there were snow-capped mountain peaks as far as I could see and enormous glaciers snaking their way from the mountains.  Pristine blue waters around the mountains mirrored the skies.  I was falling in love and I hadn’t even landed yet.

View from the plane

 

At the Cordova Airport, I was warmly greeted by Melissa Gabrielson, a wildlife biologist at the Cordova Ranger Station. “You came at a great time!” Melissa explained, “It’s been a dry winter and it’s also been raining a lot these past couple of weeks, but we just recently got this snowfall.”

After we got my bags, we got into one of the Forest Service vehicles and drove toward the town of Cordova.  Throughout the journey, Melissa excitedly pointed out several landmarks that wouldn’t usually be visible on most days.

“When people arrive, it’s usually rainy and cloudy,” Melissa dropped the car visor down as we drove into the sun, “but now you can see Queen’s Chair, the Heney mountain range.”  As we drove through the two mountain ranges and around a bend, a huge icy lake greeted us.  “That’s Eyak lake and there’s Mt. Eyak.  There are lots of hiking trails around here.  We actually just passed one.” I tried my best to absorb all the information, but I kept looking from one side to the next so much that I felt like a windshield wiper.  It’s a wonder I didn’t get dizzy.

We dropped off my bags at the new bunkhouse and then got right back in the vehicle so that I could get a tour of the Cordova Ranger Station and the town.  At one point, I asked if there were any places or fields where one could go for a run.  Melissa immediately took me along Orca Road, which winds its way right alongside the bay.  We saw sea otters frolicking and riding some very choppy waves.

“Bald eagle!” Quickly, I turned in my seat to look out the window. “No, bald eagles! Were those really bald eagles?”

“Yeah!” Melissa confirmed.  I had never seen a bald eagle before, so I just couldn’t believe I saw a group of them soaring the skies.

Once back at the ranger station, Melissa showed me where I could take a shortcut to the pier.  We both departed with “See you tomorrow!” and I walked down a hill to reach the edge of the bay.  The wind whipped my scarf around so that I had to pull it down multiple times, but the despite the wind chill, I reached the water and looked out at the setting sun.  I just couldn’t believe this would be my home for the next couple of months.

sunset

It began to darken so I hurried back to the bunkhouse.  Snow crunched underneath my boots and I paused to watch two eagles soar almost effortlessly to the top of the trees in the forest.

I thought, “Okay, I believe I’m in Alaska.”

Departing Alaska, My Unforgettable Experience

It is still hard for me to believe that I spent 5 months in Alaska, and that my internship has come to an end.. As a recent graduate undergraduate fresh out of college, this internship experience was a dream come true. Being part of Environment for the Americas and the USDA Forest Service allowed me to take my B.S. degree in Wildlife Conservation Biology and apply to the “real world”!

Not just any world, but only one of the wildest places in the United States, ALASKA!

IMG_5736

Each month was so distinct and memorable. I was always working on something new. Whether it was preparing for shorebird surveys or traveling to an island to work on a fish pass. I always had the opportunity to learn a new skill or apply a skill had learned in school or on my own. For example, painting! I really enjoy painting and as a minor in Art in college I learned various techniques. Yet, I had never painted on windows! I had the opportunity to do in Cordova, for the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival. I also helped the Girl Scout’s earn their art badge by painting shorebirds too!IMG_1407

IMG_1403
girlscouts2

girlscouts

During the month of May I surveyed shorebirds for 3 consecutive weeks. Each day was also full of new surprises! Whether it was spotting my first black bellied plover or seeing the change from 100 to 2,000 shorebirds over night! Each day I felt thankful for the opportunity to witness the stopover of such amazing travelers.

 

I have a lot of great memories, and experiences which I could write about for days. I am sure you have read my previous blogs which reflect on those experiences. So I thank you for reading my blog! I have decided to summarize my internship experience with a few of my photographs that I took during my term in Alaska.

Thank You!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Alaska is a very beautiful place. Which I hope continues to be conserved, appreciated, and protected for the wild place that it is.

Saying Good Bye to Dusky Camp

Saying Goodbye to Dusky Camp was not easy!

During Monitoring and Maintenance for Dusky Canada Geese Nest Islands,

we often camped for 4-6 days in the Copper River Delta.

This was Dusky Camp!

IMG_7631

These are the weather ports and tents we called home while working in the field. I think I had some of the best sleep while at camp! I’m not sure if it was a result from the hard work during the day, or because of the rain hitting the roof of the weather port at night. Maybe a combination of both!

IMG_7628

IMG_7626

On our last week at camp we had a few little visitors, red-backed voles! Dan (in the photo below) was surprised to find our furry friend in his snack bag where the vole enjoyed Dan’s M&Ms and other goodies. 
IMG_1821

IMG_1858

I really enjoyed Dusky Camp. We worked long days, but the work was rewarding, and the Delta was beautiful! After work each day at camp we got together for dinner. During that time we discussed our wild encounters from the Delta (if we had any), including lifers!

It is hard to believe that my summer at Dusky Camp has come to an end. It was an amazing summer with an awesome group of Wildlifers!

photo by Julia Reihs

photo by Julia Reihs


I will always remember the scenic views, my co-workers, and my first time :

  •  on an airboat
  • seeing leeches and taking them off my hands as they sucked my blood
  • slipping, sliding, and sinking in the Delta mud
  • being attacked by horse flies, no-see-ums, artic terns, and mew gulls
  • navigating through the Delta in search for Nest Islands!
  • spotting a beaver as he/she slapped it’s tail to scare me away
  • seeing a moose and calf (a very scary encounter)
  • being surrounded by cotton grass and Equisetum!

IMG_1889

 

“BIRDS FIRST!” – James Benson