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I was on a mission to reach Gold Ridge before sunset on a rare sunny autumn afternoon in Juneau. I planned to keep my eyes open for birds, but before I even left the shadow of the upper tram buildings something changed my focus. Just as I passed the anchor tower for the tram, a low clucking stopped me in my tracks.
I scanned the shrubbery for a moment and spotted the culprit. Between the tower legs shuffled a sooty grouse (aka "hooter"). Answering clucks made me turn in time to glimpse a co-conspirator scurry across the path and disappear into the brush. My eyes and binoculars useless for the moment, I tracked the second bird by the rustling of branches until it dashed across another open area uphill and left the scene. The first bird nonchalantly headed the same direction, then hurried across the path and out of sight, clucking as it left the premises.
The grouse reminded me of an important concept that I later put to good use: sometimes ears are a more important tool than even the best binoculars for spying on wildlife. In dense brush, such as the blueberry or salmonberry bushes common around Juneau, you can expand your circle of awareness immensely simply by stopping and listening.
Sound can help you pinpoint a suspect and get a visual, especially with birds. Often individuals stay in contact by calling back and forth, such as the grouse. They cluck to each other as if staying in radio contact on a covert mission. If the sounds are difficult to zero in on, try cupping your hands behind your ears. Like radar dishes, your hands funnel more sound into your ears and block sound coming from behind. By turning back and forth and determining which direction the sound seems louder, you can trace the origin of the sound.
I continued my hike up Mt. Roberts, listening for more activity. Along the switchback nearing the top, where bushes crowded the trail and blocked my line of sight, I heard clucking again. I slowed as I rounded the bend, spotting a trio of rock ptarmigan strutting along the trail ahead of me. One noticed me. The clucking intensified. It was faster, more urgent. I stopped. The birds picked up the pace, then two split off to in a diversionary tactic. I could hear their clucking and the hissing of feathered bodies pushing through leaves as they kept pace with the third bird on the trail. I remained motionless. After a few minutes, they decided I wasn't a threat. The clucking slowed to a more conversational level. One bird cautiously returned to the open trail, soon followed by the other. The flock continued its evening foray.
Moving in a flock means more eyes and ears alert for danger, so keeping the team in contact makes sense. When one bird spots a potential threat, it sounds the alarm. Paying attention to alarm calls allows you to judge if you're too close to the animal you're spying on. If the calling speeds up or begins to sound more frantic, stop or back away. If you proceed your subject may flee the scene or become aggressive. Backing off may give you more time to observe.
Paying attention to alarm calls can also serve as a way to ferret out what's happening. Listen to the calls. Can you determine how many animals surround you? Do the sounds show you where the action is? Animals use alarm calls when they spot predators. If you hear alarm calls, you may not be the cause! Look closer. An irate robin I once heard calling frantically late at night exposed a barred owl sitting motionless on a branch.
As I finally reached Gold Ridge, a high-pitched "chip chip" caught my attention. Scanning the subtle contours of the ground revealed an American pipit. These songbirds look like long-legged sparrows with a buff-colored chest. They nest in the alpine. In the fall, they shift to lower elevations, congregating in flocks before migrating south for the winter. It seemed odd for one to remain this high. I looked closer. This bird was chipping through a beakful of insects! Although it tried to distract me with its ruckus, the insects gave away the presence of a late family of fledglings. Perhaps its first nest failed, and it tried a second brood. In vain I searched for them. The fledglings followed orders and kept silent. Instead, I turned to see the sun start its slide behind the Chilkat Mountains. My mission of reaching the top by sunset fulfilled, I left the pipit to its family and turned for home.
• Beth Peluso is an author and illustrator in Juneau and serves as the Watchable Wildlife Program Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.