May 8th Waterbird Count Summary

Weather –

Awesome conditions to observe waterbirds today. Completely calm and no wave action to the start of the count. Heat shimmer was on hand early though. 5C at the start of the count and I was able to work with my bare hands for the first time this season.

Waterbird Notes –

Todays flight was off to a good start with the first (2) BLSC spotted flying low over the shipping channel to come to loaf near St. Helena. (79) LTDU were on the move from west to east early in the morning as well. (40) COTE made there way through the straits as well from east to west at 7:18AM. Unfortunately what started off as a good flight came to a screeching halt when a barge carrying marine construction equipment moved to within .25 mile of McGulpin Point. This barge has been approaching .25 mile closer daily now for the last few days. The noise associated with the work from cranes, tugs, outboard motors is deafening at times and waterbirds left the area in droves. In short order about (5) RBME were the only birds left in the vicinity of the count location. I spent the next 5.5 hours counting distant COLO (92) and WWSC (l24). See below for other impacts to this years count regarding the chaotic response to this springs near miss with environmental disaster in the straits.

Non- waterbird Notes –

EABL (1) has returned after nearly a month hiatus.


RESQ was happy to have some crackers this morning. A BLSQ was spotted moving through the forest westbound. (3) White- tailed deer made there way down to the waterfront while things were still quiet this morning. They waded out a little way into the lake just to the west of the gazebo.


John G. Munson west bound at 9:08AM and American Integrity east bound at 11:52.

Visitors –

Lynn stopped by to take some photos of the ongoing assessment of the damage to several structures under the straits. On that note it would be advised to visit between the times of dawn to 8:30AM if your plans include observing waterbirds in the straits. Currently on a daily basis a barge with marine construction equipment is slowly inching its way closer towards the shore near McGulpin Point at about .25 mile a day. As noted above the general noise level at times is deafening and as a result very few birds ( 5 – 10 RBME) remain in the immediate vicinity to rest or forage. It seems this particular barge, tug and smaller outboard boat make there way into the area by 8:30AM. I am not sure if they plan on being out this weekend like they did this past weekend.

Total observer hours – 8.0

Todays tally is posted on eBird here.

This will be the last detailed blog post for the season as I must prepare for my departure which I am looking forward to.

This count season has been difficult and left me concerned about the future of the straits as a migratory pathway for waterbirds. Since April 1st of this year’s count I have watched and read about the impacts of an anchor strike on every major structure in the straits. I have been approached by USCG, USDA, DEQ, documentary filmmakers, news crews, reporters and employees of every company who sustained damage during this event on a regular basis. Most of the information disseminated to me in the field has been misleading at best. I do appreciate the concerted effort of Joe Haas of DEQ making regular visits to keep me informed about the process and what to look for. He exceeded all my expectations in handling my report of excessive preening by RBME and discolored rafts of ice. I stand by that observation as I have not observed this kind of behavior before or since the recent spill; it’s important to note that it only takes a dime sized spot of oil to kill a bird in cold water. I have had to listen to pumps running nearly 24 hours a day for 3 weeks strait and now when I thought I was through the worst of it the next disturbance has arrived in the form of barges full of marine construction equipment. It seems I am having to live through the ongoing “response theater” on a daily basis for the remaining 6 weeks of the count. I have been watching this type of theater unfold for far too long.

Until all of this had happened I had no idea that I was counting from a location so close to where a potential environmental disaster nearly occurred. As I have watched the marine construction barge moving closer on a daily basis I am concerned about the natural gas smell I reported on April 11th and subsequent headache that evening. I hope that I have not been exposed to any dangerous chemicals while attempting this year’s count.

I have a long history with oil spills having grown up in Alaska. I was a junior in high school when the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred. At the time I wasn’t engaged with the long term impacts to my home state and its wildlife. A few years later I began working for the company that ended up responding to the spill in Prudhoe Bay. I worked on a variety of “clean ups”: diesel fuel truck spills, benzene removal, fin fan cleaning and shut downs. Most of the time we merely moved contaminants around or hid them. We rarely “cleaned” anything. My last job up there was pouring carboline paint ( a subsidiary of RPM) and the thinner into 50 gallon drums and sealing them shut. My coworker and I then kicked the drums down into unmarked and unlined pits where the chemical is probably seeping into the tundra to this day. VECO finally was caught up in its own bribery scandal and was later acquired by Colorado-based CH2M Hill.

I was fortunate enough to return to Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Americas ONLY Arctic Refuge ) where I trapped and banded shorebirds for Manomet. It was special to see what the north slope looks like without all of the resource extraction and chemical spills. Seeing a shorebird nest in the tundra with a full clutch is worth more to me than all the riches in the world; the nest may belong to a bird that has traveled all the way from Argentina. That summer I rode my bicycle up to do this job and when I returned to Fairbanks I continued on up to Prudhoe along the Dalton Highway. Once in Prudhoe I had to go on a paid bus tour to actually dip in the Arctic Ocean before returning back to Reno on my trusty bicycle. Seeing a tiny little Red-necked Phalarope delicately spinning in a pond for insects below a gas flare is imagery straight out of the Blade Runner movie. I had to question my motive for riding back up there after my less than savory work in college. I did learn some interesting facts from the disgruntled ex-BP employee who led the tour though.

I had no idea over 25 years later I would be sitting next to another potential Exxon Valdez during this year’s waterbird count. If I wanted to experience that again I could go work in Prudhoe and kick chemicals in 50 gallon drums into unmarked and unlined pits. I do think it is more than coincidence that I ended up in Mackinaw City during this critical event. As such I have a perspective that may differ from the residents of the immediate area. There really isn’t any need to rely on the validity of my claims of this years events as it has all been extensively studied by industry experts and a German biologist. The entire event this spring can be summarized in this Smithsonian article from 2016: Why We Pretend to Clean Up Oil Spills.

So it is with the thoughts of these experts that I ask you my fellow bird lovers this question: what use is counting and studying birds if you aren’t willing to speak up for them when their lives and habitat are in danger? At the very least if and when the birds of Mackinaw Straits are impacted I hope some of you will urge that they be killed not cleaned.

Like this article?

Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on LinkedIn
Share on pinterest
Share on Pinterest
Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get notified about new articles

Login to your account

Job Opportunities

Executive Director Position Available