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By Dan Rudy 

Bird Fest points out diversity of wildlife on Stikine


Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

USFS wildlife technician Gwen Baluss tweezes a tick from a Lincoln sparrow caught Sunday morning as part of a demonstration of wildlife capture and data collection. Migratory birds commonly carry such parasitic companions back with them, and the specimen will be sent to a laboratory for analysis.

The weekend's 18th annual Stikine River Birding Festival had plenty of sunshine, baseball and a Tax Free Day to compete with but nevertheless drew good crowds for a variety of activities.

The festival highlights birding opportunities that the region affords. Southeast Alaska is a major destination for long-distance migrations, as its diverse landscape is a hot spot for species declining elsewhere. The Stikine River area sees over 120 species of birds during migratory periods, and shorebirds stop along the river to breed and feed by the millions.

Festival-goers were given an introduction to birding by Gwen Baluss, a wildlife technician with the United States Forest Service (USFS). Stationed in Juneau, she has been birding in Southeast for 15 years.

"Birding is part of my job and most of what I do in my spare time," she explained.

Getting into birding is simple. In Southeast, all a person needs is a pair of waterproof binoculars, a Rite-in-the-Rain notebook and a locally focused guide book. The USFS and the City and Borough of Wrangell have put together a birding guide specific to Wrangell, which is available at the local Forest Ranger's office, City Hall and other locations.

Once kitted out, there are a few tips prospective birders need to know to be effective. Baluss recommended catching up on the songs of local species, making use of a wide range of online resources. For identification purposes, birders can learn the silhouettes of different birds, as well as the way they stand and use their wings in flight. Keeping a log book of sightings further improves an understanding of what, where and how many species live in a given area.

A follow-up hummingbird banding planned for Sunday morning was cancelled, as too few specimens have been seen this season at local feeders. Instead, Baluss set up mist nets near the City Park in order to catch songbirds. Working from a truck bed, she then demonstrated how to measure, log and tag specimens before releasing them back into the wild. The station ended up netting 13 specimens of six different species.

"It's kind of nice because people get to drop by, hold a bird, in and out," said Corree Delabrue with Wrangell's local USFS district.

She helped coordinate this year's festival, which focused on the community and wildlife education and was organized by the USFS, City and Borough of Wrangell, Wrangell Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Nolan Center.

The festival does draw some visitors as well. Delabrue estimated about ten out-of-town participants came specifically for the festival, with several boating trips up the Stikine booked over the weekend.

The festival finds other ways to celebrate an appreciation of avians. It has long sponsored a photography competition and added an art component as well this year. Nine entries were submitted in several categories by local artists.

"There were so many great entries," Delabrue said. Nolan Center staff and passersby were conscripted to assist in the judging. Winners received prizes of bird books and art supplies.

Also celebrating area fowl, the local chapter of Alaska Ducks Unlimited held its annual dinner Saturday night at the Nolan Center to raise funds for wetlands conservation efforts in the state.

"We had more people this year than last year," explained Keene Cort. Despite the good weather and competing events, he estimates 120 people attended the dinner.

Coinciding with the Birding Festival celebrations, Angerman's Golf Tournament on Saturday and Sunday marked the first tournament of the season for Muskeg Meadows.

Nineteen golfers competed over the weekend, and despite the simultaneously scheduled Ducks Unlimited dinner, the annual Golf Dinner on Saturday was a success.

"We had a better turnout than last year, which was wonderful," commented Bill Messmer, board member and volunteer at the course. He said Wrangell's annual Ryder Cup will take place this weekend, with locals competing against golfers from Petersburg.

The festival closed with an afternoon performance at the Nolan Center on Sunday, demonstrating that birds aren't the only inhabitants on the island capable of producing music.

An assortment of talented students began the event with songs, violin pieces and other instrumentals. Afterward, a variety of classical and modern pieces, ballads and even shanties were shared by resident and visiting musicians.

"It's pretty amazing, Wrangell, the talent we have in the community," said John Rentschler, who was master of ceremonies for the event.

People also had the opportunity to learn about other programs active in studying and sustaining bird populations. On Friday, Veronica Padula of the University of Alaska presented findings of the effects of plasticine debris on bird populations in the Aleutian Islands (see adjoining story), and on Saturday, Matthew Reiter of California-based conservation group Point Blue described his group's work with migratory shorebirds.

Point Blue is committed to reducing the impact of habitat loss, climate change and other threats to wildlife. For the past half decade, it has been expanding its scope from restorative and conservative efforts in and around California to focus on bird populations spanning both American continents.

The Migratory Shorebird Project has been connecting organizations and communities across the Americas' Pacific coast for the purpose of monitoring and collecting data on shared shorebird species.

Shorebirds are among the most highly migratory groups of birds on Earth. For example, one bar-tailed godwit from Alaska was tracked by satellite as traveling 7,270 miles to New Zealand in only six days and traveling another 6,400 miles to the South China Sea before returning to Alaska that year.

Reiter explained there has been a 40- to 50-percent decline in the populations of shorebird species since 1970, due primarily to habitat loss, pollution, human disturbances, revived predator populations and climate change effects.

The scope of the project now stretches from Cordova to Paracas National Preserve in Peru, operating in 11 countries. Since 2010, the number of volunteers involved have doubled to 400, and the number of sites have grown from 11 to 90, with 3,000 survey areas.

Such easy collaboration has been made possible by the Internet. Information from different sites are collected and stored online with the California Avian Data Center whose staff analyze the data and disseminate it back to member groups. This allows the group to better understand the wider impact of localized restoration efforts and population effects.

"It's really fun to look at and a good way to get information out to folks," Reiter explained.

Many of these birds come north to Alaska and British Columbia to breed in the summer and migrate south during the winter. Reiter explained the Stikine may become an important monitoring site in future, as the eventual effects of climate change compel shorebird populations to change their migration patterns.


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