36 Days in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Subarctic Waterbird Paradise By David Stimac
Spectacled Eider, Emperor Goose, Sabine's Gull, Red-throated Loon, Bar-tailed Godwit were just a few of the bird species that
a biologist friend listed in his invitation to visit a remote research camp located on the edge of the Bering Sea in western Alaska.
Two years of planning and waiting and I was finally on my way to see and attempt to photograph some of the rarest and most beautiful birds in the world.
Four biologists studying Black Brant had set up the camp in mid April and were awaiting the birds' arrival. A tent on the tundra would
be my home for the next few weeks.
I decided to head out at the beginning of May, and witness the birds' arrival and migration of others that would continue further north. I needed to fly from Anchorage
out to Bethel and then, in a small plane, north to the small Cup'ik village of Chevak. Once in Chevak I needed to hire someone to take me about 30 miles out to camp by
snowmobile. Timing was crucial. The idea was to get out to camp during the last few days that snowmobile travel was possible. A few weeks later (in theory) I
would return to Chevak by boat and fly home. If I waited too late, travel to the camp would be impossible as there wouldn't be enough snow for snowmobile travel, and the
rivers would be frozen or choked with ice, not allowing boat travel. I warned my family and employer that I may not be back when they wanted me back.
I arrived on May 3 and at first, migration and photography was pretty slow. There were a few Willow Ptarmigan around and some early migrants like Tundra Swan
and Northern Pintail. When migration finally started rolling it progressed very quickly. Spring in the arctic happens fast and soon after their arrival birds are nesting. During the
second and third weeks new birds were arriving almost ever day. Highlights were the large flocks of Emperor Geese and smaller numbers of Spectacled Eiders flying in
from the Bering Sea ice. Red-throated Loons and Sabine's Gulls were common and provided some excellent photo opportunities.
Most of the time I would head to one of the larger ice free ponds and sit at the edge or in shallow water and wait for birds to return. Waders were a necessity as I was
usually in water a few inches to a foot deep. I wore light weight breathable stocking foot waders with wading boots. I used a 600mm f/4 lens and a Nikon D300
on a heavy tripod with a Wimberley head. I also had some success hand holding a 300mm f/2.8 with a 1.4x teleconverter during long walks that I didn't want to carry
heavy gear on.
At times, it was hard to know which way to look. Concentrate on framing the hyperactive phalaropes swimming around me and a flock of Spectacled Eiders would
tear by 20 yards away. Stalk a distant pair of Emperor Geese and watch another flock of eiders splash down into the pond I had just left. Finally the stars aligned
and I began to get into better and better photographic opportunities with these ducks. Eventually a few became used to me and I was able to get very close.
By the fourth week waterfowl, gulls and some shorebirds were nesting. Brant and Cackling Geese kept me awake at night as they got into territorial disputes near
my tent. Willow Ptarmigan, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin and Lapland Longspurs sang and displayed from my tent roof. I was in birder's bliss and with the
river ice still firmly in place I was also testing relationships with my wife and my employer.
By June 8 ice conditions allowed boat travel and I began my journey home. I'm left with only one vacation day for the rest of the year but I'm already planning
a return trip next year.
For a more detailed account of the trip and more photos please visit my site here <<