ANCHORAGE - Thousands of people drive south from Anchorage to see mountains, eagles and glaciers on the Kenai Peninsula. Most blow by a vista where they could be seeing aerial acrobats.
Just 10 miles from downtown Anchorage is Potter Marsh, part of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. And at the south end, a mile or so from the elevated boardwalk that draws most visitors, is a modest pullout that gives world-class views of a few dozen Arctic terns nesting in marsh grasses.
They're fresh in from Antarctica, southern Africa, southern Australia or New Zealand, an 11,000-mile trip, or if they take a meandering route as suggested by recent research out of Greenland terns flying over the Atlantic, nearly double that distance.
Watching the terns is a perfect side trip for someone with a car and a day in Alaska's largest city.
"A lot of local people photograph them down there," said Joe Meehan, lands and refuge program coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "A lot of visitors driving by see the pullout, see people there. So they pull in. But I think it's in a lot of guide books, too, for people to see terns in the Anchorage area."
Arctic terns experience two summers per year and more daylight than any other creature. They don't fly nonstop, but they're champions of the bird world for length of migration.
They're handsome birds - slender with long, gray, V-shaped wings and long, deeply forked tails, a white neck, black cap and blood-red beak, legs and feet - but most people admire them for their athleticism.
"It's hard to take an ungraceful picture of a tern," said Warren Suddock. "I've spent the last couple of weeks actually trying to get some. It's hard to do."
The retired Anchorage police officer lives above the marsh and makes an almost daily morning trip to town to buy himself coffee and his wife a mocha. He inevitably turns into the pullout to take pictures of grebes and terns.
"The mocha sits here and gets cold while I shoot for 30 or 40 minutes. Then I take the mocha home," he said.
He finds terns mesmerizing.
"They're just build perfectly for what they do," Suddock said. "Just amazing. They dive, they soar, they hover."
Some call them "sea swallows." They can fly over prey with their bills pointed down at right angles to the water. When Suddock gets his photos home, he sometimes can't believe the angles of their wings.
"Physically a bird can't do that," he said.
Professional wildlife photographer Didier Lindsey admires how Arctic terns hunt for fish.
"They're incredible hunters. They probably hit 50 percent of the time, I would imagine. It's just amazing. You can see them hit the water. A lot of times, as soon as they hit the water, they've got that stickleback or whatever they're after.
"They're a challenge for photography, because they move so fast," he said. "On a windy day it's ballet and aerials. They're all over the place."
They're also territorial. When a bald eagle flies high over the marsh, terns and the gulls go airborne in a cloud of avian alarm.
If the eagle flies low, terns go into attack mode. Lindsey recalls seeing a tern chase an eagle the length of the marsh, pecking at its head like a machine gun.
"I've seen them absolutely wear out an eagle flying overhead. They are fearless. They've bounced off my head. I've seen them go after moose that have wandered into the wrong place."
The head bouncing occurred when Lindsey crossed the highway to take photographs of birds in Turnagain Arm.
"I didn't realize one of them had a nest over there," he said. "It bounced right off my head. It got me out of there. I'm like, 'Sorry!' Over here they seem to be pretty cool. Over there it was a different story."
Terns arrive in early May and stay until August. In tern courtship, a male carries small fish in his bill, passing low over a female on the ground. If she's interested, she'll join him in a high, fluttering climb and flight, according to state wildlife officials.
Arctic terns nest from the Alaska Panhandle to Barrow. Nests are little more than shallow depressions scraped in the ground with little or now lining material. When eggs hatch after about 23 days, the young quickly leave the nest to hide in tall grass, waiting for their parents to bring them small fish. After 25 more days, they're able to fly.
"It's hard not to take pictures of terns," Suddock said. "You just get addicted to 'em."
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