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By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer
On the calm, misty morning of April 13, about a dozen people gathered at the small shelter at Ward Lake for a guided bird-watching hike.
Ben Limle, district wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, and Ross Dorendorf, area wildlife biologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, guided the walk. The event was hosted by the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center as part of a month-long series of events for the annual Hummingbird Festival.
Limle and Dorendorf set up spotting scopes near the shelter, where people took turns spying a male bufflehead duck with its two female companions near the lake's far shore.
Discovery Center Director Leslie Swada arrived with freshly baked banana bread as she joined the group.
Watching attendees taking turns at the scope, she remarked, “It's really wonderful with the spotting scope, because it's almost like holding the bird in your hand.”
Limle introduced himself and Dorendorf to the group, and then dove into the morning's topic.
North America has about 900 species of birds, he said.
“Ketchikan has about 260-some-odd species, I think, that have been documented,” he added. “Alaska has around 400 — a little more than 400, I think — documented.”
“We have a lot of migrants who come through here too,” Swada added.
“Of the 260-some that are documented, the bulk of those are migrants,” Limle said. “We only have 60 to 70 breeders.”
Limle said that loons are commonly seen in the area's lakes, including common loons, red-throated, yellow-billed and Pacific loons that “you see everywhere.”
Swada asked the group to begin to learn to identify birds by their songs and calls by standing quietly to listen.
“Here, because the forest is so dense, often that's how we identify them is through their songs,” she said.
As the group stood silently, the sounds of myriad birds trilled, warbled and rang from the trees, over the sounds of young children playing nearby.
“That trill, that's a junco song,” Limle said, referring to the commonly seen dark-eyed junco.
He then described the flat “hum-and-whistle” of the varied thrush, easily heard distinct above the other birds.
When one hiker mentioned he had heard no varied thrush through the winter, Limle explained that they do not call during that season.
“They sing to find a mate,” Limle said, and that behavior is quelled during the winter.
The next species he described was the song sparrow, which also becomes much louder in the mating season. He pointed out the tiny song birds perching in the winter-browned, tall plants along the lake's edge.
“The song sparrows, they'll perch, and they'll perch high on the spirea and they sing really loud,” Limle said. “If another bird comes in, they get really territorial and they'll flare their wings and their tail, and they'll yell at the other bird to go away. They're really good at setting up territories.”
By that time, Limle said, about one hour since he'd arrived at the lake, he'd already identified 13 species, and had noted each in his pocket notebook. Those included ruby- and golden-crowned kinglets,
“The ruby-crowned kinglet, I hope you hear their song today, for a little tiny bird, their song is super loud and has a lot of noise to it,” he said. “It's not quite like the Pacific wren, which is also a little bird which has a really common song, that you can hear around town. You can hear it even in the winter time.”
With uncanny timing, a Pacific wren perched near the group, which grew silent in observation.
Limle then directed the hikers' ears to the drum of a red-breasted sapsucker farther down the trail.
“The red-breasted sapsucker's a type of woodpecker, usually around bigger trees. They have a bright red breast and head. They can be low on trees — they forage pretty low. If you ever see holes in trees that are perfectly horizontal, that's caused by the red-breasted sapsucker. They make little sap wells in horizontal lines on trees.”
He said they not only lick up the sap, but they eat the insects they find in the tree.
He also confirmed that early in the spring, hummingbirds will follow sapsuckers to lap up the sap left behind by the larger birds.
Limle said that the area also hosts other woodpecker species, including the hairy woodpecker, the downy woodpecker, Northern flickers and a few sightings of black-backed woodpeckers.
In response to a question about when or whether bird feeders should be used at peoples' homes, Limle answered that bird feeders are a fine way to attract birds, but that because they also attract bears, they only should be put out from the months of November to March.
“You don't want that attractant out there, and bring them into your neighborhood,” he said, adding, “Bears have incredible noses, and they'll find it.”
Hummingbird feeders are less attractive to bears, Limle said, but should be hung as high as possible, just to be safe.
As the group moved down the trail, toward Grassy Point, Limle stopped near one of the picnic areas, and told the group it was a great area to spot brown creepers.
“They're a really common bird, especially in old growth, but people never see them, because they're really cryptic, their call is really high pitched — not that obvious,” he said.
He joked that his mission was to see a brown creeper that morning, because his friend and renowned birder Steve Heinl, an Alaska Fish and Game biologist who originally was slated to lead the tour with Limle, but was unable to attend, had not seen a brown creeper yet this season.
“They creep up the trees, and their bill is slightly curved, and it's perfect for sliding just under the bark” to look for insects, Limle said.
“That's one of my favorite birds,” Limle said. “They're so unsuspecting, and when you see them up close, they're really pretty birds.”
Limle's mission was unfulfilled on that hike, even with more than a dozen eager hikers searching for the creepers on the trees.
Limle then demonstrated the skill of calling in birds by “pishing.” He whished air through his teeth in a staccato call. He said it brings out the territorial behavior in the birds, who fly in to check on the noise-making invader.
“Kinglets are usually really reactive, sparrows are really reactive” also, he said.
The attendees enthusiastically tried out their pishing skills, but without much luck.
On Grassy Point, as the group observed the bufflehead duck trio, Limle described the differences between the two groupings of ducks: divers and dabblers.
Divers are “smaller, they sit lower in the water, and then they dive a lot,” Limle explained. “Dabblers are generally bigger, they don't sit as low in the water. If you see a duck with its butt up in the air, that's a dabbler.”
Pointing out the bufflehead group, Limle said, “The adult male is bright white with that big white patch on the head.”
He said the females are more drab in color, which protects them somewhat from predators.
Dorendorf said that the divers, such as the buffleheads, forage for vegetation under the water, as well as worms and other invertebrates.
Limle said the best times to find large numbers of birds are early in the morning, as well as after a storm during spring and fall migration, when birds “fallout,” as they come down to perch in search of protection.
“The day after a big storm, is awesome,” Limle said.
He recalled one bird walk he took at Roosevelt Drive after a storm, when he, Heinl, and avid birder and Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Andy Piston identified more than 300 yellow warblers.
“Which is just crazy,” Limle said.
He said he also has seen photos of cruise ships covered in thousands of birds, when the birds sought the only haven they could find during a storm in the open ocean.
At Ward Lake, Limle said the outlet of the stream is a great place to see water birds, as there is plentiful food washed into the lake there.
A delicate “peek peek” call floated from the trees, as the group watched the ducks, and Limle identified it as a hairy woodpecker's call.
Limle said the Ward Lake area also is a good place to spot owls — Piston saw a pygmy owl a month ago right at Grassy Point, he said.
“The pygmy owls, they'll be here in the brush, they'll perch on structures, they're usually somewhat obvious,” Limle said, adding that they hunt diurnally, rather than strictly nocturnally like other owl species.
“The fall is probably the best time to see pygmy owls, but spring is good too,” he added.
Limle said that the most common owl in the area that calls often is the barred owl, which sounds like a “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” cadence.
Dorendorf said that attaching a phrase to a bird's call is a common way for birders to remember how the call sounds.
Limle said the song sparrow, which also often is spotted in the Ward Lake area, has a very distinctive call, with three solid notes, like “dee dee dee,” then a fast series of jumbled notes.
The bald eagle is the most common raptor in the area, Limle said, but sharp-shinned hawks nest in the Ketchikan area, as well as merlins, which are a small falcon that visit in the spring and fall.
Other raptors in the area are hawks: red-tailed hawks, goshawks, Northern harriers, or marsh hawks; and falcons: American kestrels, peregrine falcons and merlins.
Goshawks, a “Forest Service regional sensitive species,” Limle said, are listed as threatened in some states. Locally, Limle has been surveying for goshawks as part of his job, in areas targeted for logging.
The goshawk is classified as an accipiter — or forest hawk — which are smaller, with rounded wings, which enables them to be more agile in the tight flying conditions among trees.
Swada said a juvenile can be seen on display at the Discovery Center.
As the group walked from Grassy Point back to the main trail, a kingfisher swooped overhead to perch above the shoreline.
The group settled once more when it reached the arched bridge over Ward Creek. Limle began pishing again, in an effort to attract birds.
He paused briefly as he and Dorendorf explained the ethics of pishing. They said that too many people pishig in an area too often can exhaust the birds' precious energy sources, so it must be used judiciously.
Below the bridge, an American dipper, which Limle said is the only “truly aquatic songbird,” made an entertaining show near the conclusion of the tour. The dark, long-legged bird, repeatedly performed its characteristic curtsey-style dips as it hunted along the muddy shore, and dove repeatedly to hunt underwater.
The dipper also filled the air with a melodic, loud, constantly varied song. A nearby raven tried to compete with a hollow, echoing call.
Limle said dippers especially love to eat salmon alevin — with their yolk sacs still attached.
Dorendorf said, “they'll actually jump in the water, fully submerged, and walk around on the bottom.”
The birds have long, strong toes that allow them to grip the stream's rocky bed.
As the group moved back toward its starting point, a red-headed sap sucker was spied on a dead tree between picnic sites, where it gripped a tree trunk and probed its beak into a nesting hole.
Limle said when he was in college, he was skeptical of the birders, and “called them nerds.”
Then, he took a birding class.
“I'm like, alright, this is actually pretty awesome,” Limle said. “It gets addictive. Next thing you know, you're spending a lot of money on binoculars, spending money on scopes, then you're spending money on a big camera.”