Wildlife flocks to Juneau and could bring sell-out crowds

Posted: Sunday, April 23, 2006

Springtime does bring the tourists back.

The humpbacks are trickling back from their Hawaiian timeshares and into Berners Bay on a fishing trip. The sea lions also have amassed for an annual binge, keeping a wary eye on the killer whales. And the birds - oystercatchers, eagles, cormorants and a few loons - are harbingers of a massive avian migration that is about to crescendo in Southeast Alaska.

Following them back to Juneau's waters, shores and trails is the resident pod of nature lovers, led in an annual stalking series by naturalist volunteers for the Juneau Audubon Society. Last week's boat tour to Berners Bay signaled the start of the group's spring lineup of nature outings, and for a few dozen passengers it was an auspicious start.

"I feel really blessed," said Cory Grzesik, a Purdue University pharmacy student temporarily assigned to SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium for work experience in Juneau.

She saw countless birds, two kinds of whales - the orcas at close range - plus Dall porpoises surfing the boat's wake, harbor seals splashing off the rocks and hundreds of sea lions sunning, bickering and nursing on Benjamin Island's rocky shore.

"I didn't expect to see a lot of things - maybe some birds and a seal or two," Grzesik said. "It was well worth the money and time."

The money amounted to $40 a pop, and the tour was supposed to last four hours. The return to Auke Bay was about a half-hour late because of all the stops for gawking.

The volunteer naturalists aboard the Allen Marine boat were frequently interrupted from their spiels by the very things they were talking about: "Look! A loon. Eleven o'clock."

Juneau Audubon Society spring wildlife trips

April 29: Fish Creek Trail. Meet at 7:30 a.m. by the Fish Creek bridge on Douglas Island.

May 6: Berners Bay boat tours. Boats depart from Don D. Staffer Harbor at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

May 13: Perseverance Trail. Meet at the Basin Road trailhead at 9 a.m.

May 20: Mendenhall Wetlands. Meet at the end of Radcliffe Road at 8 a.m.

May 27: Outer Point. Meet at the old Outer Point Trail on Douglas Island at 7:30 a.m.

June 3: Dredge Lakes. Meet in the parking area by the Mendenhall River on Back Loop Road at 8 a.m.

June 10: Amalga Trail. Meet at Amalga Trailhead at 8 a.m.

• All wildlife hikes are free; tickets for the Berners Bay tours are $40.

"We've had a pretty spectacular day today," naturalist Laurie Ferguson Craig told passengers at the end of the Saturday cruise. "I'm not sure there's much we haven't seen."

There is more on the way, though, as the Audubon Society offers a weekly assortment of mostly free nature outings around Juneau this spring. A naturalist will lead walkers - usually between six and 30 of them, depending on weather - on a Saturday adventure each week through June 10. Most will be in pursuit of various birds, though there is one scheduled look at tidal-pool life and another set of Berners Bay cruises.

Most of the tours last two to four hours, and are led by experts who enjoy sharing their knowledge, said Steve Zimmerman, field trips chairman for the group's Juneau chapter.

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"It's just sharing information and discovering what's going on," said Zimmerman, himself a retired oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "All sorts of things can show up during the (bird) migration - things you wouldn't expect to see."

A prime area to see what odds and ends come through this year would be the mouth of the Mendenhall River, where thousands of shorebirds stop. Two of the trips that should offer good views of the flocks that swarm there beginning in late April are the April 29 trip on Fish Creek Trail, across Gastineau Channel, and the May 20 Mendenhall Wetlands trip, Zimmerman said.

A Perseverance Trail trip May 13 generally turns up warblers, thrushes and other forest birds that come to the area to breed, Zimmerman said. Grouse are audible but not often visible on the Perseverance Trail trips.

The May 27 low-tide trip to Outer Point will feature intertidal life such as algae and invertebrates, but also a few birds.

A June 3 hike through the Dredge Lakes area offers a look at songbirds. Among the featured guests are Western tanagers, warblers, vireos and redstarts, Zimmerman said. The combination of leafy trees and lots of fresh water draws a mix of birds unique in the area.

A June 10 trip on the Amalga Trail gives hikers one of the best chances in Alaska to see rails, both Virginia and sora, Zimmerman said. Rails are rare in Alaska, and sora rails have been especially rare, but they seem to be breeding here in greater numbers recently, he said.

Those who want to put down a few bucks for the Berners Bay cruise, the next chance is May 6. The Audubon Society will conduct two tours that day, leaving Auke Bay at 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

The fee for the tours helps pay for the Audubon Society's educational efforts year-round, Zimmerman said.

Naturalists on last week's tour explained that the fuss in Berners Bay really is about one critter that few ever see: the hooligan. As the small, oily fish returns each spring to the estuary, its myriad predators follow, and put on the show. It's a scene that at times gets pretty messy, naturalist Mary Willson told passengers.

"There will be grease and blood and scales and oil, and sea lion scat just coating the surface," she said. "What they're doing here is like visiting the ice cream shop."

The $40 ticket covers hot chocolate and coffee.

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