Fifth annual tern festival to welcome Aleutian terns

An Aleutian tern in breeding plumage rests in front of Mount Saint Elias, in Yakutat.

YAKUTAT – Some humans may think of Yakutat as out-of-the-way, but it’s right where one of the world’s largest known breeding colonies of Aleutian terns wants to be. So for the fifth year, organizers of the Yakutat Tern Festival are hoping people will join terns in making Yakutat a destination. “The idea was around for many years to do some sort of wildlife birding festival,” said Yakutat-based wildlife biologist Susan Oehlers. “There’s definitely interest in the community for having folks come in to do more than just fish, but there’s not that awareness…. We’re looking at it from the ecotourism standpoint, and to support the local economy, which is suffering.”

 

Though Yakutat is near the southern edge of the Aleutian terns’ breeding range, it has one of the species’ largest known breeding colonies.

“It’s a species that’s on the decline; there’s not a lot known about them. The Yakutat area appears to be somewhat of a stronghold for them,” Oehlers said.

A special education teacher on sabbatical, Stephanie Latzel, who is coordinating the festival this year, said education is an important focus.

“It really is one of our focuses to help you understand what a unique ecosystem we have here (in Yakutat,)” she said.

Though there are “some serious birding opportunities,” the festival isn’t just for birders. It also celebrates Yakutat’s culture, with talks on its glaciers and natural history, a performance by the Mount Saint Elias dancers, and art.

This year’s highlighted artist is Alison Bremner, who grew up in Yakutat.

“We’re really excited to have her come back and be a role model for the kids,” Oehlers said. Bremner will make rattles and paint bentwood boxes.

“Something Yakutat has that sets us apart from other festivals as well is (Yakutat’s rich Tlingit culture,)” said fish biologist Teresa Swanson.

There’s an annual contest for the art that goes on t-shirts and program covers. This year’s cover artists are Kayla Drumm, a high school junior who has painted murals around Yakutat, and Corbin Demmert.

This year’s keynote speaker is John Marzluff, author of several books on birds, among them “In the Company of Crows and Ravens,” about the way that people and corvids interact.

The $50 festival fee covers most field trips and activities; trips in kayaks, charter boats or planes require a bit of extra money. All field trips leave from the high school.

This year, among other trips, there are some early morning visits to see songbirds, a charter boat salt water trip to see marine birds, and a kayak-based trip at the mouth of the Situk River, depending on the weather. There’s a trip to Harlequin Lake, and, of course, a trip specifically to see Aleutian terns.

There are also birding opportunities in town. (While this reporter was staying at Leonard’s Landing Lodge at the end of April, a flock of sandhill cranes flew directly overhead and headed straight towards Mount Saint Elias, glowing pink in the setting sun.)

Alaska Airlines is providing discounts on flights (check the website for the discount code).

“It gets better every year,” Oehlers said. “We started from scratch. We’re biologists — none of us are festival event organizers, but we’re learning as we go… I think we’re getting more support, and probably more community buy-in.”

Supporters are listed on the website, but just a few are local lodges, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, the Yakutat Cultural Association, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and SEARHC. The festival, a nonprofit, is organized in large part by the Forest Service and housed by the Yakutat Chamber of Commerce, with help from the city. It’s also funded in part by grants.

It’s been a challenge getting the word out about the festival, Oehlers said. So far, it’s mostly local — she estimates around 15 people each year come in from out of town.

“We try to do as much as we can for our low budget,” she said. “We’re kind of tucked away, and it’s not necessarily easy or cheap to get here… we knew in talking to other festivals it doesn’t happen overnight. We’re hoping that will happen more. Everyone that comes in from out of town has good things to say.”

This year, the festival is May 28 – 31.

To learn more about the Yakutat Tern Festival, visit www.yakutatternfestival.org.

• Contact CCW staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@capweek.com.

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