by Fred Broerman
Our Move to Bethel, Alaska
I was selected to be reassigned from a Refuge Complex in Northwest Mississippi to a Supervisory Fish and Wildlife Biologist position at Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in mid-April 2000, and arrived here in Bethel, Alaska with my family on June 17. Now it is late September and my head is still spinning from the shock of being immersed into "bush" Alaska, and the Yup'ik Eskimo culture--not to mention nearly 24 hours of daylight in June, and July, and coming in the midst of busy and intense field season at the refuge.
I've been in a very high learning curve and busy flying to field camps to see first hand the research projects carried out by the refuge's biological staff ,and getting up to speed about the distribution of birds and other wildlife on a 20-million acre refuge, a bit larger that the State of South Carolina. It is the largest refuge of the National Wildlife Refuge System. To give you an idea of how large the refuge is, it took us over six hours to fly the perimeter of the refuge's coastline to complete a beached marine mammal survey. We found numerous dead walruses, a few beaked whales and seals.
My wife Allison's description of Bethel as a "diamond in the rough" is very accurate. It's a town of 7,000 people with about 9 miles of paved road and 14 miles of gravel, but hosting Alaska's third busiest airport and 25% of its air traffic. The busy airport is due to the fact that you cannot drive TO Bethel; everything is either flown or barged in. Bethel's airport also is the hub for transportation to over 40 Eskimo Villages along the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers and the coastal Yukon Delta area. There are plenty of cars here (including ours) but there is no highway system linking Bethel with the Anchorage-Fairbanks, Canada, or Lower 48 road system. This means (as Brodie and Danica, my two teenage daughters, said before moving here) "no malls!" There is, however, something about "bush" Alaska that cuts through the showy facade that you sometimes find in the lower 48.
Many people here are concerned with basic survival elements of life, such as staying warm in the winter, putting up enough salmon for the winter and having the snow machines ready for caribou and moose hunts. They don't close down schools in the winter here until temperatures reach -65? F.(!). The culture, extreme weather conditions, and high prices of food and other necessities promotes straight forward communication, non-flashy life styles and warm hospitality. Bethel is not an Alaska destination location with mountains and a nearby clear ocean bay that you often see featured on showy postcards. Bethel is a rough inland bush town situated along the Kuskokwim River and surrounded by many vast miles of open spongy tundra. On most clear days the Kilbuck Mountains can be seen about 100 miles to the east. Before I go into the details of the bird life here, I want to assure you all that as a family we are doing really well despite the initial month of culture shock of the move.
Bird life: I guess I'll start with my summer walks or bike rides to work-- 1.2 miles of gravel and 2 miles of pavement. Long-tailed jaegers are very common around town, and prone to dive-bombing anything that comes within a quarter mile of their nest. It is not uncommon to have a jaeger hovering over a section of paved road waiting for an opportune time between traffic to consume the remains of an unfortunate redpoll or tree sparrow which met its fate beneath an automobile tire. I never tired of watching this very agile seabird attending to it nesting duties on the tundra during the long summer days.
My daily commute also included scolding whimbrels, Pacific golden-plovers; western sandpipers, red-necked phalaropes and a few least sandpipers. Tree sparrows and yellow wagtails are fairly common in the occasional willow draws that have been formed at disturbances to the tundra by construction or road work. Lapland longspurs and savannah sparrows are very common on the tundra. Common and hoary redpolls are numerically equivalent on the Tundra to indigo buntings in Mississippi, and sound very similar to goldfinches. Arctic terns hover over a nearby tundra pond which also provides nesting habitat for pairs of green-winged teal; wigeon and red-necked grebes. We do have robins in Bethel and I was pleased when I realized that I hadn't heard house sparrows or starlings! Ravens are common in and around town and always, it seems, they're always up to mischievous antics.
My first job-related field work was out to Scammon Bay just south of Norton Sound about 140 miles west northwest of Bethel to census island nesting seabirds. I was able to see my first horned puffins and a slaty-backed gull. We also found young flightless chicks of Caspian Terns. This is one of the only locations in Alaska where nesting for this species has been documented. I was also fortunate to see a northern wheatear nest on this trip, near the Cape Ramonzof which overlooks the Bering Sea.
My second trip was out to the coastal marshes to visit a field camp studying nesting Brant I saw my first Emperor Geese, spectacled and common eiders, as well as many Canada Geese (the cackling subspecies), Sabine's, mew and glaucous gulls, red-throated and Pacific loons, not to the mention shorebirds. The number of nesting waterbirds per acre is overwhelming! The vast windswept coastal flats where these birds nest are very lush with short vegetation. There are many shallow ponds in irregular shapes and sizes. These wetlands are bisected coastal creeks (5-15 feet deep) meandering through the maze of wetlands. Getting from one place to another by foot is like out smarting a maze. This coastal Brant camp is about an hour flight in a Cessna 185, or 206 mi. west of Bethel over many miles of upland tundra where many pairs of Tundra swans, sandhill cranes, shorebirds and waterfowl nest.
I also was able to take a 8 day raft trip down the Kisaralik River situated in the Kilbuck Mountains with the refuge fisheries biologist who was evaluating spawning habitat and salmon runs. It gave me an opportunity to count broods of Halequin ducks and keep an eye out for cliff-nesting raptors as well as cliff swallows and bank swallows. On the trip we saw a few semipalmated plovers, and wandering tattlers; spotted sandpipers and greater yellowlegs were more common. Blackpoll warblers and Arctic warblers were heard on most days and numerous merlins, bald and golden eagles, and a few goshawks rough-legged hawks and single peregrine were seen from the river.
But the large, swift gyrfalcons seen on this trip marked my memory profoundly, as did the three grizzlies and the small herds (20-50 individuals) of caribou crossing the river downstream of the raft. Field work is winding up now and the refuge's three planes are now one by one being taken off Hanger Lake to have their floats removed and replaced with tires or skies. What's up bird wise for winter? My neighbor, the waterfowl biologist for the refuge, has been setting up his snow bunting and McKay’s bunting feeding station and trap. He traps and bands these two species as a hobby in the winter. I might take part in Bethel's Christmas Count, but I won't be trying to get 5 or 6 species of wrens this year as I did at the Grenada, MS CBC, last year. I have rambled on quite a bit but felt you folks would enjoy a snapshot of what goes on up this way.