This time of year, migratory birds are following the Pacific Flyway up to breeding grounds in Alaska — some, such as Arctic Terns, from beyond the tip of South America. Following the birds part of the way have been two migratory humans: Christian Michael McWilliams and Jean Carlos Rodriguez-Ramos, who this week ended their 3 month “bird trip” in the Kenai Peninsula.
Sponsored and organized by a group of U.S and Canadian wildlife agencies and conservation organizations — including the Audobon Society, the National Park Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and Canada’s Wildlife Service — the trip began in San Diego and has brought the two to bird habitat sites and birding events along the migration route in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Denali, Fairbanks, and the Kenai Peninsula. Alaska is an apt place for the bird trip to conclude. In the geography of bird migrations, Alaska belongs to the Pacific Flyway, the western-most of four broad paths dividing the Americas into routes birds follow south in the winter and north in the summer.
McWilliams described the state as a “concentration point” for migratory birds searching for breeding and nesting sites.
“The biggest reason Alaska is important to migratory birds is you’ve got birds coming from Russia, South America, and even from the East Coast, just concentrating here to breed,” McWilliams said. “Once they’re finished, they’ll disperse again.”
During the trip from San Diego, the pair watched as north-flying bird flocks molted into their breeding plumage in preparation for their arrival in Alaska. Now they’ve seen the long migrations conclude at the gull colony at the mouth of the Kenai River, the seabird nests of Kachemak Bay’s Gull Island, and recently on a 7 hour float trip on Skilak Lake with local birders, during which Rodriguez-Ramos said they recorded 70 species of bird by sight or sound. Notable sightings included kingfishers — more than Rodriguez-Ramos had ever seen in one place — and what McWilliams said is his new favorite bird, the red-throated loon. Puffins were another highlight of the Alaskan leg of their journey.
“That was really cool,” Ramos-Rodriguez said. “It’s this bird that you see on TV or in cartoons or somewhere else, and now you can see it in real life.”
The trip has afforded them an opportunity to see not only birds, but also human reactions to birds.
In their time on the peninsula, they’ve participated in two birding festivals: Homer’s Shorebird Festival and the Kenai Birding Festival, which concludes on Sunday.
“People around here are more aware of bird issues, and bird conservation,” said Ramos-Rodriguez. “Every place we’ve stayed here, people have bird feeders. In California, they didn’t have that much consciousness that birds are passing through. Here, it’s more of a natural environment, so people can actually see them and hear them, and that influences it a lot.”
McWilliams attributed the difference to Alaska’s lower population and larger area of undeveloped land. In these respects, the northern end point of their trip is the opposite of where it began.
“We’d ask people, ‘what is there to do here?’ in small random towns in California,” McWilliams said. “They’d say ‘nothing.’ (I’d ask) but what about that huge refuge you have over there? They didn’t know what it was. And that doesn’t happen here. Everyone knows where the refuges are, (and) various areas where they can spend time outdoors here.”
McWilliams said he noticed a diminished bird habitat while traveling by car to bird sites in California, where “you can drive around and be surrounded for miles and miles by agricultural lands that used to be real important areas for birds.”
“A lot of the habitats we went through in California only exist now because the state of California pumps water there and keeps it going,” he said.
McWilliams said conservation awareness “could go a long way in diversifying the population that’s involved in conservation — right now it’s largely older white people.”
Doing so was one goal of their trip. McWilliams and Ramos-Rodriguez — both native Spanish speakers — have attempted to involve Latino communities in conservation by giving Spanish-language presentations in schools they’ve visited and are writing a bilingual blog about the trip. McWilliams said birds are a good tool for creating interest in conservation.
“I see birds as this large group of charismatic species, and use them to get people on board with the larger conservation movement,” McWilliams said. “… Everything a bird needs are things that help other species. Like if you maintain a habitat to help birds that are coming through for a time of the year, you’re also helping every other species that uses that wetlands to survive.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.