Of Mountains and Murres

Mountains and murres you ask? A fair question, those two things don’t go together in my mind either. Yet here in Homer, Alaska, the still snow-covered slopes of the Kenai Mountains reach right down to the cold waters of Kachemak Bay, where rafts of thousands of Common Murres are staging for summer. Roughly pigeon sized, these matte black and white birds are one of the deepest diving bird species on the planet, reaching depths of nearly 600 feet in pursuit of the small fish they primarily feed on.

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A small flock of murres on the bay below the cloud-capped peaks

The mountains and murres are far from the only attraction to this area. I am here in Alaska for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, held annually to celebrate the massive amounts of migrating shorebirds that visit the area on their journey to their breeding grounds even further north. I was honored to be invited here to speak and guide through support from the Schantz Brothers Foundation, which supports a young ornithologist to travel to the festival every year (and if you feel like you qualify for that travel grant, be sure to check out http://schantzbird.org/ for 2019!).

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A Black Turnstone patrols the stony beach in search of invertebrates

Over the last several days, I have been fortunate enough to be able to thoroughly explore and bird this incredible area of the world. From the opportunity to teach new birders about the local songbirds in the nearby boreal spruce forest, to scampering on wet rocks in the sea break in search of birds like the tattlers pictured below, to birding by boat in the bay, surrounded by swirling flocks of murres and kittiwakes.

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Wandering Tattlers are a unique species to wet, rocky Alaskan coastlines

As I’m writing this from a coffee shop in Homer to wait out one of the frequent rain showers, bracing for a lull in the weather for me to shoulder my monstrously large pack to head back out to the Homer Spit for some last minute birding. I’m catching my red-eye through the night flight back to Colorado tonight, only to start work within hours of getting back. I will be conducting bird surveys for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies through the summer, so expect to hear of some more amazing adventures soon!

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A pair of Harlequin Ducks, one of my all-time favorite species

A huge thanks is in order for the Schantz Family for their support of my travel here, this amazing opportunity would have been completely unachievable for me otherwise! Additional thanks to Robbi Mixon for organizing such an incredible event, and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies for organizing my travel logistics! And finally, thank you to the one-of-a-kind community here in Homer and the new friends I have made, I can honestly say that this is one of the few places I have ever visited that I have genuinely enjoyed at least as much Colorado, if not more. I would highly encourage anyone to consider attending the shorebird festival next year in 2019!

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In Pursuit of Winter

January 2018 Training Update

Dirt trails are one of my favorite things. The right trail is like a good friend, it is there if you need a good start to your day, and is there at the end of a long day when you just need to refocus. I am extremely fortunate to have a fabulous trail system just a short jaunt from my apartment in Gunnison, cutting contour lines through the sage-covered hills behind campus.

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The Contour Trails

This proximity to amazing dirt can also make winter training especially challenging, as the trails become unrunnable and close due to snow cover, restricting our training runs to the roads. So, as my roommate and I cruise along the packed snow trail at the end of January, we had to ask ourselves…which wrathful god took winter away? 

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Playing on the trail ©Christian Kerr

True, the ability to run trails through the winter will be an invaluable asset to my preparation for a 100k trail race in April and break some dreaded monotony of winter training. However, the intense cold and frequent snows are a part of living in Gunnison, and despite my complaints about both, their absence is both obvious and uncomfortable. Efforts to find actual snow for backcountry ski cross-training become frustrating and difficult, while in previous years actual snow was all but unavoidable.

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Rock avoidance has turned into a training staple this season

So I will continue to run the trails, but with hope that soon I will soon be forced to ski them. In Colorado, winter snowpack is crucial to providing moisture to the land through dry summers, with the slow release of stored precipitation from the high country. As we roll into February, we can still see dirt in the mountains, and that is cause for great concern. Appease the snow gods; let it snow!

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Enjoying the nearby backcountry ©Christian Kerr

Be Bold, Start Cold

The beam of my headlamp jolts as I fall, abruptly illuminating dark tree trunks before merely reflecting off crystalline white snow. With an effort, I pull my leg from the hip-deep posthole I just created. Cautiously, I take another step forward. This is a common occurrence on this crisp New Year’s morning, as adventure-buddy-in-chief Austin Riley and I climb the trail in Rocky Mountain National Park in the pre-dawn blackness.

Before I can even fully see without the benefit of my headlamp, I hear it, the two-part call note of my first bird of 2018, a Pine Grosbeak! Soon we approach treeline and prepare to leave the more or less defined trail, pausing on the side of a frozen lake to equip our boots with crampons and free ice axes from our packs. The wind here is absolutely brutal, with windchill temperatures around -16ºF, and my glove-free hands go completely numb within seconds as I fumble with straps. Through the howling wind, my second bird of the new year gives its rattling call from somewhere in the spruce-fir forest below us, an American Three-toed Woodpecker.

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Austin, geared up for the climb ahead

With the snow now much steeper and not a soul having broken the trail before us, the going gets a fair amount tougher and slower. Tucked into some low shrubs above treeline, though, Austin chances to flush the third bird, a rather mystical creature perhaps akin to a unicorn. With pure white plumage and striking black eyes and beaks, a small family group of White-tailed Ptarmigan break from their snow burrows and quickly shuffle a few feet away from us before bedding back down to watch us walk past.

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Not bad for an iPhone picture?

As we near our turnaround point well into the alpine tundra below the steep cliffs on the backside of Longs Peak, my first mammal of the year and a fourth bird (Brown-capped Rosy-Finch) make their presence known. Unlike most mammals that live in such cold ecosystems, the American pika does not hibernate. Instead, it survives the winter off of vast reserves of vegetative material that it spends its entire summer gathering. In cold, wind, and snow that makes me extremely uncomfortable even with all of my down and Gore-tex, this tiny, cute Lagomorph lives quite comfortably, as one neeps at us from a snow-covered boulder field.

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The sun rises on 2018

The final treat of the day romps into view soon after we reenter the subalpine fir. An American marten cautiously investigates us, curious as to why two humans are also out playing in the snow on such a blusteringly cold morning. It quickly loses interest in us and returns to hunting pika and squirrels, but not before I capture the following video. And for those of you curious, the remaining bird species I saw on this hike were Mountain Chickadee and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and the final mammal was a Pine Squirrel.

My best wishes to you all for a fabulous 2018! Thank you for reading, and I look forward to taking you with me on many more adventures in the coming months!