Bird counters walk through heavy snow in Tlell, reach new high at Rose Spit

  • Jan. 19, 2009 8:00 a.m.

By Margo Hearne–Jack Frost nipped my inner ear during the Sandspit count and left a mark that lasted a while so I stayed home from the Tlell count. It was quite a day.”There was eight to ten inches of snow almost everywhere with heavy snow showers all day,” Peter Hamel said. “We had to find sanctuaries in the trees and look for places where snow hadn’t reached the ground. There we found the birds. At the Ranch two Hermit Thrushes and a Yellow-rumped Warbler sought refuge in the grass around one of the barns at the base of the walls. It’s really late in the year for hermits and it was the first warbler of that species seen all count. Sometimes we get six or seven wintering over throughout the islands, but just the one this year. They’re small and dark, with a yellow rump and two patches of yellow on either side of the breast and either a yellow or white throat. They’re usually very active and you hear them before you see them; their ‘chip’ note is very distinctive. Most of the ones we see here in winter have come from Alaska where they nest. They don’t nest here, and we see them most often in fall or winter. It was lovely to see them on the count in Tlell; they were like little flashes of sunlight in the dark winter. The rare Wood Duck we had seen earlier in December was long gone, although there were ducks on the Tlell River and in the flooded fields. Trumpeter Swans fed with the domestic waterfowl at Sitka Studios. Martin (Williams) and my son Richard, visiting for Christmas, tramped through the woodlands and found many Varied Thrushes, a pipit and a lovely nuthatch while I checked out Hecate Strait. The only real concentration of waterfowl was in front of Bottle and Jug Works, where 1,614 Common Goldeneye, six Red-throated Loons, four Western Grebes and a tiny Cassin’s Auklet were all within visible range. We had tally of 50 species in all, which, given the snow-pack, was very respectable.”As for the Rose Spit count, this year was different. Ever since the island counts began 27 years ago Peter Hamel has dreamed of doing an ocean count off Rose Spit. This year his dream came true. Peter, Martin Williams and Kirk Thorgeirson all set out on Jan. 2 for the count aboard Kirk’s 27-foot Boston Whaler. “They are the ‘bird men of Masset’ said Kirk. “I ran the boat; Martin watched the seas and Peter watched for birds from the fish box in the stern the whole time. He sat there for hours, scanning the water. Every time he saw a bird Martin and I said ‘lock and load!’ It was very entertaining and when he said let’s go over there to look for birds Martin and I had to tell him that over there was a sandbar! We drank lots of coffee and Peter’s cheese and crackers were great. He was like the rock of Gibraltar sitting there. When a bird showed up both of them would say there’s a rare one and both of them would have the binoculars up and scanning. The seas were very rough on the way out, perhaps four-to-six foot waves against the tide but on the way back when the tide turned it was flat calm. It was cold though, perhaps – one degree or so, but we were all well dressed. We got about a mile-and-a-half past the red can-buoy at Rose Spit; almost got as far south as the green buoy before turning back. My boat has two Mercury 225 outboards so we got out there fast enough but idled everywhere on the way back. We covered the inshore areas around Tow Hill, the Hiellen River, the pinnacle off Yakan Point and the Sangan River then raced over to Striae Island and did in behind there. It began to get dark; otherwise we’d have tried for Naden Harbour! When we got back to shore they both just looked so happy! They had a good time and so did I. It was very enjoyable hanging out all day with the bird men of Masset.”They found lots of birds including 1,510 Common Murres and 23 Ancient Murrelets but the most exciting birds were nine Yellow-billed Loons, a new high for the Rose Spit count.