The crunch of my feet sounded thunderous as I made my way out to the freshwater pond on the Kenai Flats. The frost was just melting away as the first rays of sun touched my back. My target was in sight and everything was shaping up perfectly. None of the ducks had heard me and even the flock of sandhill cranes that I slipped past were strutting and posturing in search of food, aware but unconcerned by my presence.
My target was in sight. Two Eurasian widgeons were snapping emerging caddis flies off the water and were unaware of their proximity to a pair of American widgeons in the same pond. With a slow and steady hand I raised the barrel of my spotting scope above the level of the dried grass with hopes of soon capturing the perfect photo of these two species of widgeons, side-by-side.
Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a truck door slamming over on the Port of Kenai Road. Within a matter of a few seconds the birds became agitated. The cranes started moving away and left their prime feeding grounds behind. After a short hike they took off running and eventually got airborne, headed to a more secluded part of the flats. The ducks all stopped feeding and drifted to the far side of the pond.
For a moment I experienced dj vu. With the frosty grass, ice cold fingertips, and two black labs running like the wind, I could have sworn I was sitting in my hunting blind on a cool September morning. The problem is that this happened last week rather than during the fall hunting season.
In an attempt to give his dog some exercise, the owner had pitched the dog out then driven down the road as the dog ran behind. I won't get on my soapbox about who needed the exercise more, but I do have to question the choice of location for dog exercise.
These birds have only a short window to stop and refuel on their long journey to the breeding grounds. Many of them have traversed their way up from the southern half of the U.S. or further. They avoided all of the aerial barriers we have erected, squeezed into the few riparian areas that we left for them amongst vast expanses of agricultural fields, and for a day or two have chosen to fatten themselves at the world famous Kenai River Flats. This is likely one of their last opportunities to fatten up before the rigors of rearing offspring, where they likely will loose all of their remaining reserves just to rear their young.
I wish I could say this disturbance was an isolated event, but over the past several weeks I have stopped at the Port of Kenai and the end of Cannery Road five times to get the scope out and see what new birds have checked in overnight. On four of the five occasions, well meaning pet owners have released their dogs and continued their drive to give the dogs some time to run. During all of these events the waterfowl and shorebirds were forced to abandon the prime spot they had picked to dine or rest, and expended energy rather than gaining it. The ones that did not flush moved away from the road and stopped feeding, not sure if they would be forced to fly or not.
This disturbance was what I personally saw in a couple of hours spread over five visits. Multiply that by the number of daylight hours and you can see that, from the birds' point of view, seven-course gourmet meals are being turned into rapidly grabbed tidbits. The birds literally have to eat on the run with such disturbances and that doesn't give them enough time to build on their reserves.
I am an owner of two dogs and understand the desire to get them in shape, but there has to be a better place for this activity that does not negatively affect the birds. Even a short-term interruption of their refueling can have a long-term effect on their ability to raise young during the summer months. A well-documented study in Australia in 2008 concluded that even leashed dogs walking through important migratory bird areas resulted in a 41-percent decrease in the number of birds and a significant reduction in species diversity.
In 2009 researchers in the Mediterranean found that migrating birds were expending twice as much energy during stopovers as during sustained long distance flights. The birds don't have enough energy to make the long flights on reserves alone; they must spend time and energy at the stopovers to add enough fuel to finish the journey. This is just another clue into the importance of the time spent feeding and resting at these stopover spots.
So, think about it when you want to get out and enjoy the outdoors with your pets. There are plenty of beautiful spots to get fresh air on our beautiful Kenai Peninsula without stressing birds at these vital refueling spots.
Waterfowl and shorebirds use the Kenai and Kasilof Flats heavily for the later half of April and most of May. This would be a great time to pick an alternative spot for the dog exercising activities.
Todd Eskelin is a Biological Technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He specializes in birds and has conducted research on songbirds in many areas of the state.
Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on our website http://kenai.fws.gov/. You can check on local birds or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline (907) 262-2300.
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