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.


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.


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


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.


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


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


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.

Welcome to Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge

How many Dark Eyed Juncos do you see?

How many Dark-eyed Juncos do you see?

I thought I knew a great deal about invasive species until I saw a nutria swim across a wetland at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.  It was a gorgeous morning without a single cloud in the sky. And no, the immense flock of geese hovering over our heads was not a grey thundering cloud.  An eager group of volunteers and I were huddled around the site manager, Erin Holmes, as we learned about how the wetlands of this refuge were managed. Midway through Erin’s sentence she lifted an arm up and pointed out a large rodent wading through the water. In shock I opened my eyes wide and brought my binoculars to my face. WHAT IN THE WORLD WAS THAT!?! I have never heard about this animal before and now I won’t stop hearing about the nutria. I have seen it already twice in the span of two days.  Apparently this South American native has caused havoc in wetlands in the U.S. and other countries. It is definitely a nuisance and it is not welcomed here at this refuge.

Unlike the nutria, I have been taken in so kindly by both the people and the wildlife. The staff and volunteers at the refuge are so sweet and knowledgeable. I really enjoy being in their company and am beyond excited to work with them for the next six months. I have also learned that kindness is not limited to the people I have formally met.

On an early morning I had the opportunity to explore the many habitats of the refuge. On this mini adventure I was accompanied by a group of 20 Dark-eyed Juncos foraging for food on the gravel path. The juncos led the way for a good portion of the trail but eventually we split ways. Although the juncos had gone away there were plenty of other birds to watch. There were birds I had seen before and other birds I didn’t even know existed. Fortunately, I was able to ID a few of these new birds! As a novice birder, I always feel so accomplished when I am able to get my mental picture of the bird I am observing to match the field guide. Or better yet when the calls you are hearing match the call descriptions in the guide. Does anyone else relate to this awesome feeling?! Anyways, I had finally reached the forest portion of the refuge when I decided to call it a quits. I would save this habitat for another day, there was too much going on around me and I could easily spend a few more hours here. As I ventured back to the visitors’ center I realized that many other people had arrived to enjoy the refuge too. Most if not all of the people I passed on my way back, gave me a great big smile and said hello.  Oh yeah. I’m going to love it here.

Christmas Bird Count

It’s my first one and I don’t know what to wear! kidding, though it is my first one and I’m not sure how they go. Next month I will be participating in my first ever Christmas Bird Count. Does one get a participation award even though they didn’t spot anything but some silhouettes? I’m not the best birder but I think I can wing it (get it, hahaha)! But in all seriousness, for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, this year marks the 115th Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Every year for as long as your grandparents could probably remember, birders and bird enthusiasts alike have gathered in an attempt to count every last bird on earth.

In the year 1900 a traditional practice of Christmas critter hunting was turned on its head when Mr. Frank M. Chapman, an Audubon Society ornithologist, and some 20-odd birders decided to partake in a bird census instead. On that day, Frank and friends registered around 90 species during 25 counts that ranged from Toronto to Pacific Grove, CA. The Christmas Bird Count was born and now has become a premier event in birder culture. Today, the count is hosted at over 2,000 sites throughout the Western Hemisphere, with tens of thousands of participants. It is the longest running citizen science survey IN THE WORLD!

And while a lot of people do it for fun, the data gathered from such surveys is actually extremely useful for research. With the help of the Christmas Bird Count, there have been crucial discoveries in population trends, effects of climate change, and other environmental issues that lead to reports and legislative change. So it’s like having fun while saving the world, right? Who wouldn’t be into that!?

Learn more about the Christmas Bird Count, the Audubon Society, and how you can be a part of this great project: http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count

Good Mourning Dove

I'm trying to wake up while not disturbing any ghosts!

I’m trying to wake up while not disturbing any ghosts!

I think it was a great idea to go birding at the cemetery on the week of Halloween, props to whose ever idea that was. I was able to tag along to Green Mountain Memorial Park, to go birding with a group of bird lovers that head out with owner of the Wild Bird Center, Steve Frye. It was my second outing with Steve and company, and I felt exceptionally confident of my abilities, maybe it had to do with me having capable binoculars this time. I even took a crack at identifying a raptor, and to my surprise was right on the money. I’m still astounded at how easy it is for experienced birders to identify birds simply by a evanescent glimpse of them or a snippet of their call. Isn’t there a saying about how patient mothers are or something? Well, they should replace mothers with birders because I tell you it is a truly difficult skill that one has to develop and maintain to become a birder. I’m glad there are people like the ones in the birding group that are not just very knowledgeable, but also very inviting. They can smell out a newbie like me and instead of casting me off they are excited to share with me what they know. Like, how a black-capped chickadee and a mountain chickadee differ in that the latter has a broad white eyebrow, or that just because a bird is blue, doesn’t make it a blue jay and a well secluded mourning dove in a tree is not a baby pigeon, whoops!

Can you guess what this is?

Can you guess what this is?

Well it’s great to see that we birders (I consider myself one now) are a friendly bunch! I was touched by the hospitality in such a way that later that day I decided to take my young cousins on a birding expedition. They cheered in unison when I asked them “¿Quieren ir a ver los pájaros?” although I doubt they’ed ever been birding, but they were game and so was I. So we hopped in the van and they in their car seats and we drove to Waneka Lake, where we walked around the lake and had some close encounters with canadian geese as we made or way to a marsh in the back where a handful of mallards sat. They asked me a lot of questions, some of which I answered and then some of which had me pondering them as well. I realized as we sat on the steps of the observatory deck, the girls switching between binoculars and pointing out the ducks, that the little encouragement and generosity shown to me by the expert birders had trickled down into myself and now my cousins. It makes a big difference when experiencing something new that those that have already been there make an effort to support those who have yet to indulge. Hopefully that adventure we took will ignite a desire for birds and nature in those kids, and they too can one day be engaging the new guy on the bird walk, teaching him what they know about mourning doves and chickadees.