Natural Observations-Memories and golden plovers-6-5-2013


On a visit to a beach near Homer,  host and producer Robin Song remembers her companion SnowAngel, and gets her first sighting of a Pacific golden plover, which brings memories of a friend who traveled between Alaska and Hawaii, as the plover does. Text follows audio.


When I made a birding trip to Homer over May 18th to the 21st, I took with me some of the ashes from my beloved Australian Shepherd, SnowAngel. I had last been in Homer with her in 2009, and now I wanted to spread her ashes in the places where we had gone for walks during our stay. One of the places we frequented was a walkway built along the edge of a marsh north of Bishop’s Beach. It’s a birding hotspot, and people go there to watch birds in the marsh and farther out on the mudflats beyond. There’s a large variety of birds to be found in a relatively small area, including shorebirds, geese, ducks, songbirds, and raptors.


As Lyra and I made our way along the wooden walkway, I was filled with memories of having SnowAngel here and watching her sniffing in the winter-dried marsh grass as Lyra was now doing. I drew the little glass vial  from my jacket pocket and found just the right place to release a few pinches of ashes. I held my fingers out and let the wind take the ashes out into the marsh, sending a blessing to my long-time friend and life companion.


That accomplished, I stood watching the Canada and White-fronted Geese walking out in the gray silt of the tidal flats. The tide was returning, and the geese poked into the mud, gleening what food was to be had. A passing adult Bald Eagle circled, and came in low. This sent the geese into the air and they called as they flew. Their cries blended with the distant lapping of the waves on the shore-a very satisfying sound, to my ears. As they circled to come in to land again in the marsh, the mountains across Kachemak Bay made for a wonderful backdrop.


I saw a bird walking in the marsh in front of me and trained my binoculars upon it. The Pectoral Sandpiper was busy searching for edibles in the shallow water and amongst the islands of grass. Three more sandpipers were spread out in the marsh.


Another bird caught my eye. As I focused on it, I caught my breath-a Golden Plover! It was a first-sighting for me, and I was excited to see this species. Three more were also scattered in the marsh. I took several photos, though the birds were just beyond the range of my telephoto and I knew the photos would not be great. I took them more to record the experience for myself.


Back at the car I looked in my bird book and found that they were Pacific Golden Plovers. This particular species was on my Bucket List, and I was pleased to check it off. The Pacific Golden Plover had been on my List for many years because of a good friend of mine.


When I was twenty I met a Unity Minister in Santa Rosa, California, named John Strickland. We had become friends and remain so to this day. In the 1990s he and his wife were transferred to a Unity Church in Hawaii and John would write to me about the birds he was seeing on the islands. One he particularly liked was the Pacific Golden Plover. He would see the birds in the grass outside his office window during the winter. They would leave the islands in the spring, heading for Alaska.


At that time I wasn’t the avid birder I would later become, being more of a general naturalist. Then John and his wife were transferred to a Church back in the Eastern U.S. He asked if I would do a painting of something that would remind him of the years he spent in Hawaii. He also got to visit Alaska, when he came here to give a talk at the Unity Church in Anchorage several years ago. I thought of the plover, the only bird that inhabits both Hawaii and Alaska.


The Pacific Golden Plover is a truly remarkable migratory species, for it makes one of the world’s longest over-water migrations, flying 3,000 miles over open sea. Feeding on crustaceans, invertebrates and insects to build up body fat for several months prior to migration, at maximum weight they tip the scale at a mere seven ounces. Their wing span is two feet and they stand eleven inches tall. The plovers fly in flocks thousands of feet above the ocean, using the stars and sun to guide them, not stopping for food or rest during the two day flight. In the best wind conditions, they can average sixty miles per hour, and their lungs can absorb more oxygen than those of other animals, which allows these birds to fly at high altitudes.


In some springs a flock can leave Hawaii in eighty-degree weather and land on an island in the Bering Sea in snow and temperatures near freezing. The layer of body fat they put on for the migration now helps to keep them warm until they can make it at last to the open tundra and their nesting grounds in Siberia, western and northern Alaska. There they will find last year’s crowberries to sustain them as the lengthening days bring more insects, and – eventually – new berries.


By the time their speckled chicks hatch, the hoards of mosquitoes for which the arctic is famous will be there to feed them and all the other migratory species as well. It is why they come to Alaska, why they brave the long and challenging flight over the ocean. And the warm winds and balmy weather will call them back to Hawaii for the winter, this time beckoning their young ones to make that first 3,000-mile flight over the open water. It’s a remarkable feat, any way you look at it, and I am honored to paint the portrait of this incredible bird, and more than pleased to finally see, for myself, these birds here in Alaska, at long last.




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