More on Fairbanks
My half-day or so in Fairbanks before the official start of the trip has turned out to be a lot of fun. While I was over at Creamer's Field checking out the sandhill cranes—as well as a zillion Canada geese—I also hung out for a while with some people from the Alaska Bird Observatory next door, who were banding birds. I had heard about bird-banding but had never seen it before. Basically they string these "mist nets" in various places throughout the woods—they look somewhat like badminton nets, only taller—and go check them every so often to see if any unsuspecting birds had flown into the nets and gotten tangled up. Then they extricate the bird from the net, put them in a cloth draw-string pouch, and take them back to a little quonset hut to measure them, record a bunch of data about them, and fit them with tiny little metal ID bands before setting them free again.
When I got there, they had just checked all the nets and "come up with a big goose egg," one of the volunteers told me. It had been a slow day. But they were going to check the nets again in about 20 minutes, so I hung around. When the time came to check them again, I asked which of the volunteers or staff I should tag along with in order to have the best chance of seeing a bird in the nets. "Whoever's going to the gully" was the answer. That turned out to be a guy named Tim, so I followed him.
As we went to the nets in the gully (passing about six or eight ruffed grouse along the way), Tim asked me where I was from.
"Pennsylvania," I said.
"Where in Pennsylvania?"
"State College—I work at Penn State."
"Really! I went to Penn State."
Turns out that Tim is Tim Walker, who got a degree in animal wildlife management (or some such) in the mid-1980s and now lives in Fairbanks. I mean, what are the chances of that?
On top of that, we got to the first net, and there were four yellow-rumped warblers stuck in the nets, waiting for us. So I got to watch and take pictures as Tim gently untangled each bird and put it in a pouch.
Back at the quonset hut, each of Tim's warblers got the once-over from another staffer, who checked under its feathers, measured it, determined its sex (she'd call out "FP," which apparently meant "female, based on plumage"), and then stuffed it upside-down into a plastic film canister to get its weight.
Afterward, Tim would take the bird outside and set it free—or, in this case, ask me if I'd like to do the honors. Basically it meant holding my hand out so he could put the bird in my hand and then let it fly off from there.
All in all, a very cool way to spend part of an afternoon.
Tonight I met the other 13 trip participants—we all went out to dinner together—and tomorrow morning after breakfast we shove off by bus for Denali National Park, which is a few hours south of here. We'll have lunch somewhere outside the park, then board a different bus to go into the park. We'll be staying in Kantishna, at the far end of the park—a 90-mile drive from the park entrance, and 80 of those miles are on dirt roads! Apparently it will take us six hours to get from the park entrance to Kantishna, in part because we'll be watching for wildlife the whole time, and anytime anybody spots something—a bear, a moose, or whatever else they've got up here—the bus will stop, the windows will go down, and the cameras will commence clicking.
We'll spend three days at Denali, during which time I expect I will have zero Internet access. So I'll report back when I get to the other side of that blackout—and I'm sure I'll have stories to tell and pictures to show!
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