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Author shares love of flock and feather

Bob Armstrong's book on wetlands refuge sums up 40 years of research and observations

Posted: Friday, May 08, 2009

For the last several days, a hundred eagles at a time have been going bananas over the capelin fry out in the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, Bob Armstrong reported. Perhaps on Thursday, under the gray drizzle, we would see them.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The occasion was a book Armstrong wrote with his friends and fellow bird enthusiasts, Mary Willson, Richard Carstensen and Marge Hermans Osborn, "The Mendenhall Wetlands, A Globally Recognized Important Bird Area." It took about two years to write but drew on the authors' research and observations over the past 40 years.

Nearly every day Armstrong gets out to see the birds, with camera, binoculars and rubber boots. He spent his career as a state fish biologist working on things like Dolly Varden, but has been retired since the 1980s.

"I would consider it a world-class situation. And most days I'm the only one out there," he said.

Armstrong set out Thursday on the Airport Dike Trail and the mudflats beyond. 'Tis the season for fry, meaning it's also the season for migratory birds. The wetlands is a key layover and refueling spot for migratory birds, which are 83 percent of the species seen here.

The Mendenhall Wetlands recently became an international Important Bird Area, a special-area designation from BirdLife International, through the American Bird Conservancy. That means the area supports more than 1 percent of the North American population, which is true for 15 species in these wetlands.

All told, 256 bird species have been seen in the 3,764-acre Mendenhall refuge, or 73 percent of all the species that have been seen in Southeast. Every year birders find a few more. One birder, fish biologist Paul Suchanek, has recorded more than 15,000 bird sightings in the wetlands.

"Probably more is known about the abundance and timing of shorebirds here than anyplace else in Alaska," said Armstrong, largely because of such doting records.

The numbers document the area's importance. But Armstrong, though he wrote the guidebook on birds, said his passion is watching the birds' behavior.

"I'd rather sit and watch a crow trying to fit four capelin in its beak than coming out here and trying to count all the birds," he said.

The migratory birds come here sometimes in the thousands, and occasionally as loners. Armstrong knows of a single lesser black-backed gull (who knew there were so many kinds of gulls?), usually seen in Asia, that has been sighted here for 20 years. The bird was even seen, oddly, paired with a herring gull. The star-crossed couple was nesting out where the rest of the herring gulls nest on the rock face in front of Mendenhall Glacier, Armstrong said.

Usually the mouth of the Mendenhall is prime birding. The birds come to dig out sand lances, small fish that bury themselves in the sand and are to the rest of the food chain, Armstrong says, "the most important fish in the North Pacific." And recently it had been the site of major capelin fry-gorging. Soon, the flats will be covered with sandpipers.

"In a couple of weeks, you'll walk out here and every shorebird that occurs in Alaska will be out here," Armstrong said.

But now it was quiet, aside from a few gulls and ducks and a merganser here and there, and a lone greater yellowleg, a long-legged shorebird, pacing in the shallows for goodies. Under any rock, of course, you'd find a treasure chest of bird sushi: shrimp-like critters, worms, many other invertebrates.

On such a day, Armstrong remembered a naturalist's poem that had struck him: "I saw a black and red caterpillar today, and that was enough," it went.

"We could say that we saw a greater yellowleg today," he said. "And that was enough."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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