Shoup Bay serenity broken only by seabirds' conversation

Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2007

PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND - The first thing we noticed as we motored into Shoup Bay State Marine Park was the noise. The cacophony of black-legged kittiwake chatter was so loud we had to yell to each other, just an arm's length away, to be heard.

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"Wow! That's a lot of birds," I said to Andy, stating the obvious as thousands of white-bodied seabirds buzzed overhead, landed on the water or circled on a nearby rock islet splattered with their droppings.

At an estimated 20,000 birds, Shoup Bay is one of the largest black-legged kittiwake rookeries in Prince William Sound and one of the fastest growing, despite a recent downturn in fledging success. There are also about 3,000 glaucous-winged gulls, as well as eagles, arctic terns and several species of waterfowl.

And the birds seem busy all the time.

It was one of the unexpected treats of our four-night family kayaking trip to this small marine state park, tucked into a shallow bay some five miles southwest from the port of Valdez. The C-shaped bay leads to the rapidly receding Shoup Glacier, which calved thunderously on several occasions during our stay.

Shoup Bay State Marine Park is perhaps best known for a reported 150-foot tidal wave, which supposedly surged in and out of the bay three times during the 1964 earthquake. In a photograph reprinted in "8.6 - The Great Alaska Earthquake," the U.S. Geological Survey documented spruce trees in Shoup Bay with a diameter of 2 feet that were snapped like matchsticks by waves as high as 101 feet above the low-water mark.

Since then, the bay is a different place, serene despite the unending kittiwake chaos. Surrounded by mountains spilling over with waterfalls and a glacier that calves at all hours, the area is a kayaker's dream. The water is tame, and paddling alongside the shoreline offers a chance to see Alaska wildlife up close.

One afternoon, Colleen Mueller and I decided to take one of our rented double kayaks to the far end of the bay while our children and the other adults stayed behind at the Kittiwake and Moraine public-use cabins, stoking the fire that warmed the water for the homemade portable hot tub that had been brought along.

As we passed the kittiwake rookery, the birds gave us no notice, busily flying to and from their perches with twigs, mud and other debris for their cliffside nests. Birds stamped on their nests with sticklike legs, patting them down perfectly in preparation for the eggs that would soon arrive.

Earthwatch biologists living in field camps nearby said the first kittiwake egg showed up on May 21, three days prior to our arrival. That was a whole week and a half earlier than the year before, when the first egg was spotted on June 1.

The birds were indeed busy, and we floated by without paddling, just watching the birds do what birds do. What a seemingly simple, single-minded life they must have with no care other than to raise a chick. With at least 9,000 nesting pairs of birds, one might expect this rookery to grow exponentially.

Only in Alaska, we said to each other.

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