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Birding, Berners and more

Juneau Audubon Society gears up for summer, offers local hikes and explorations

Posted: April 20, 2012 - 12:01am

Between bird walks and cruises to Berners Bay, it's shaping up to be a busy season for the Juneau Audubon Society.

While there's a few new aspects to this year's agenda, like most seasons, the highlight for many locals may just be the annual tour to Berners Bay to witness a melange of serious activity.

"The reason we focus on Berners is because in late April and early May there's a lot of biological activity going on," Mark Schwan said. "We have the hooligan, or eulachon, which are a smelt-like fish that spawns in fresh water, lays eggs in the gravel and (like the life cycle of the salmon) head to the open ocean to mature before returning to their birth waters as adults."

Schwan, who is now a board member with the JAS, said the eulachon are an oil-rich and a forage-rich fish for a number of species.

"There's the whales and sea lions, who will go after them," he said. "And when they spawn and die, the gulls and eagles will go after them."

In the Berners system, Schwan said, where these fish spawn, thousands upon thousands of birds are attracted to the spot. While staging in the bay, their presence attracts Steller sea lions and harbor seals and fish-eating birds like loons and cormorants.

"There is also a run of herring — a herring spawn — that occurs in Berners Bay, as well," he said. "The herring that are staging attract whales, like humpbacks, and once the herring have spawned, their eggs on the intertidal zone attract more birds, such as scoters which will eat the eggs when they are under the water and gulls will nail them when they're exposed with the tide is out. So, you have all this activity that is driven by these two species of fish that return to spawn — one marine spawner and one freshwater spawner."

It's fair to say there's a lot to see in this area, if the timing is right.

"The last couple years, we've had some neat shows," Schwan said.

He remembers one experience two years ago, when a group witnessed a pod of transient killer whales take down a Steller sea lion.

"It was like this training session, the moms and kids were slowly beating down this big sea lion, finally everything quieted down on the surface and then 10 minutes later, the remains started coming to the surface. Then there was one or two male orcas that were breaching. It was amazing — grim — but amazing," he said.

The JAS has held the Berners cruises for many years, longer than Schwan can remember. But the event has always been a big fundraising effort for the society. This year, the cruises depart at 8:15 a.m. on Saturday, April 21 and again at 8:15 a.m. and at 1:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 28. Each cruise is four hours long and various local experts will be on board to provide naturalist interpretation for guests. Tickets cost $45 for adults, $25 for students and $10 for children. They can be purchased at Hearthside Books.

"It's actually quite a good deal and we seem to sell out every year," Schwan said.

Other events that have just started up include weekend Bird Walks led by various members of the JAS, the Tracks and Signs program led by Kevin O'Malley and the Saturday Wild walks which begin in June. The location of these walks varies, but a full schedule can be found at the JAS website: juneau-audubon-society.org. As always, these nature walks are free and open to the public.

 • Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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