Watching avian visitors rewards Kasilof couple

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

The first run of the season is well under way. Before the king salmon, before the tourists, the true snow birds of Alaska are returning.

Their old friends are delighted to see them.

"The other day we came home, and there were 100 sitting on the ice just beyond the open water," said Lois Calvin.

The flock was a mix of Canada and white-fronted geese, and she was surprised to see them together.

For 40 years, Calvin and her husband have been watching birds return to the private lake next to their Kasilof homestead. Although she has no formal ornithological training, countless hours of observation have given her insights into her winged neighbors.

Calvin keeps track of who arrives.

"I mark it on the calendar, but I haven't kept a journal. We just enjoy it," she said.

The birds are running late this year, she said.

Calvin speculated that their slow arrival is due to ice lingering on many ponds and lakes. She is still waiting for the loons, terns and swallows.

Sitting in a weathered wooden chair only a few yards from the water's edge, she set aside her binoculars and well-used bird guide to talk about her regulars.

"These red-necked grebes are fun to watch," she said, pointing to a pair of pointy-billed birds carrying on a raucous dialog between feeding dives.

The grebes, smaller relatives of loons, build floating nests of pond weeds and carry their hatchlings on their backs. They come to the lake every year, she said.

In just a few minutes watching with Calvin by the shore, eight types of birds came along. Lines of Canada geese circled overhead; mallards flew by; a pair of goldeneyes joined the grebes; a lone pintail drake landed in the water; a pair of lesser yellowlegs appeared in the grass of the shoreline; and a group of Bonaparte's gulls began harassing a juvenile eagle on the ice nearby.

On May 1, Calvin saw a pair of trumpeter swans stop at her lake to rest. After a few hours, they went on their way.

"We used to have people come from all over the world because we had nesting swans," she said.

The fact that the swans no longer nest on the the lake prompted Calvin to observe that people make lives hard for such birds. Motorized traffic on the water, people approaching or touching nests, loose dogs and a proliferation of eagles drive the birds away, she warned.

Calvin's advice for seeing lots of birds is to minimize disturbance and watch patiently.

Over the years, the birds have rewarded her family's quiet patience with some extraordinary avian displays. They have seen courtship, ducklings and one rare visitor: a great blue heron.

Calvin looked out over the water as the last bits of ice tinkled in tinkled in the breeze.

They welcome all birds, she said, with the exception of the eagles, she said, eying the national bird with skepticism. The gulls circled the bird of prey, making a ruckus.

Soon the terns will arrive and take up guard duty more effectively. They are the policemen of the avian neighborhood, she explained.

"I have seen terns literally thump (an eagle) on the head," she said.

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