Waterfowl and migratory birds forage on the northern Peninsula's Chickaloon Flats, creating a boon for hunters and biologists alike. And recent surveys by Kenai National Wildlife Refuge show that the ecosystem may be changing.
For the past three summers, refuge biologist Todd Eskelin has done airborne surveys of the 74,000-acre marsh. The $15,000 project keeps him in the air to count waterfowl and shorebirds along eight sections of the flats. Eskelin said that he can accurately spot birds about 650 feet from either side of the plane. The refuge will extrapolate the numbers to estimate the population.
The surveying pinpoints migratory routes and population concentrations. The scientists said that the flats are relatively undocumented. The last comprehensive survey was done in the 1970s, and the refuge saw a graduate student's research project as an opportunity to construct a backdrop for further studies.
Supervisory biologist John Morton said that the refuge has monitored the Chickaloon area via satellite since then, and not all is well. The scientists said they aren't exactly sure why.
Tides flood salt marshes along the East Coast up to six times a day. Morton said that the Chickaloon is lucky to get that treatment several times a year during particularly high waters. This deprives foliage of necessary nutrients, but inundates the marsh with enough salt water to stunt fresh water plant growth. However, the biologist said that might just be how this particular marsh works.
The refuge supervisor also noted that the Chickaloon has risen a centimeter per year since the earthquake in 1964. He said that the flats have gone up a foot and a half since the quake.
The slow climb hinders the infrequent tides from reaching ponds and creeks inside the marsh. According to Morton, the lack of moisture stiffens the mud. The muck is home to invertebrates that waterfowl, like dabbling ducks, feed on.
"They can't probe the mud if it's brick solid," he said.
The wet summer mitigated this effect, but Morton described last year's mud as "bone-dry."
The surveys also confirmed satellite findings that muddy areas are expanding throughout the flats, like a "cancer."
"They're eating the marsh from the inside out," he said.
Eskelin's pilot, Rick Ernst, said that the Super Cub Piper he flies slows to its minimum speed 200 feet above the flats during the survey.
"I'm constantly on the lookout for eagles," he said. "Sometimes I have to get out of the way of a flock of birds."
Eskelin said that the waterfowl ignore the aircraft, but geese and shorebirds are a bit more "skittish."
The surveys, part of the refuge's Community Conservation Plan, will help pick where airplanes can land. Morton said that pilots can skid into three designated areas of the flats at present. The data gathered will aid the management biologists decide whether or not to open new areas to touch downs. The supervisor said that he doesn't want airborne craft ruining vegetated areas along the flats, but determining safe spots is very "subjective."
"You can't really tell if it's unvegetated until you land and get out," he said.
Tony Cella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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