Under a pearly, windless sky Saturday morning in the Mendenhall Wetlands, gliding mew gulls drew lines on an otherwise unruffled sheet of water, a trumpeter swan floated in a waterway behind a frosted, tawny field, and a kingfisher watched an otter claim a sculpin.
They didn't go unnoticed by Bob Armstrong, Dave Fremming and Sharon Fremming, who were tallying birds for the Audubon Society's 103rd annual Christmas Bird Count.
Locals join about 50,000 people in the United States and Canada who count birds on one day in late December or early January in areas 15 miles in diameter. The idea is to provide data useful to studying the long-term health of bird populations.
This year's results weren't available by the Empire's deadline, but last year 40 Juneau residents saw 9,723 individual birds from 75 species on count day.
Saturday's count on the airport dike trail, on the last day of waterfowl hunting season and following a warm fall, was leisurely. There may have been more bird decoys than birds out on the flats.
"It looks like we should be counting people today," Armstrong said when he saw the cars lined up along both sides of the access road to the trail.
Dave Fremming, publisher of Alaskan Southeaster Magazine whose offices are near the airport, said he sees Vancouver Canada geese "migrate" to Auke Lake each morning of the hunting season and return at night to the Mendenhall Wetlands to feed on sedge.
"That's sure a pretty sound," he said.
Just after setting out on the trail, Armstrong - a retired fisheries biologist, a noted nature photographer and author of a guide to Alaska's birds - spotted mew gulls in a side channel of the Mendenhall River.
"You just sort of go by the black tips on their wings and their size," he said.
A bald eagle flew past.
"Here's an interesting bird," said Armstrong, looking through his scope. "It appears to be a trumpeter swan."
He then watched the gulls picking something off the water, probably small invertebrates called amphipods. The wetlands are rich with them. A graduate student found 20,000 amphipods per square meter in some spots, Armstrong said.
Fremming said he saw them when he took a canoe out at low tide and watched the water brush over the sand.
"What a surprise to find those little guys coming to life from the sand," he said.
The birders saw female buffleheads in the floatplane basin, watched over by a solitary kingfisher.
"There are some geese out there," Armstrong said, looking now at the wetlands. "Geese are getting desperate. Normally, they wouldn't be here. Usually, they'd be driven off by now (by hunters).
"Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute," he said, still peering through the scope. "Never mind. They are geese, but they're immobile" - decoys.
"That's why I never went moose hunting," Fremming contributed. "The decoys are too heavy."
The bird count is timed to catch resident birds and to be a social occasion, Armstrong said. "It's the time of year when people like to get together."
The counters exchanged bird stories as they walked down the trail thick with spruce on one side. At low tide it looks like a country road bordering fields. A few flakes of snow wandered out of the sky.
Fremming told about a pygmy owl that snatched up a shrew at his feet and carried his prize to a tree. Armstrong said two pairs of bald eagles have nests along the trail and have split up the hunting territory amicably.
"We're adding birds quite rapidly here - one an hour," Armstrong joked as fruitlessly scrutinized a pond near the south end of the airport. The warm fall and late winter have let birds find food in more places that are free of snow or iced-over water, so they aren't concentrating at the wetlands, he speculated.
Meanwhile, Fremming had cocked an ear toward the wetlands. "There's either one goose out there or one goose call."
Armstrong spotted 17 scaups, a type of waterfowl, on a pond near the end of the runway. Three dark-eyed juncos, a songbird, flitted in brush nearby. Finally, one of the ambiguous geese - decoy or real? - far away in the wetlands stood up and resolved the question.
"Although that's no guarantee," Armstrong said. "They have animated decoys nowadays."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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