By Paulina Martinez Sarabia
This May I had the honor of attending the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival as the recipient of the Tim Schantz Memorial Scholarship. Tim Schantz, well known birder and guide, died suddenly from coronary artery disease in 2001 at the age of 36 while guiding a trip to St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Tim had a consuming passion for birds and spent his life studying them and sharing his love and knowledge with others.
The Tim Schantz Memorial Foundation was established after Tim’s death to honor his passion by promoting interest in birds and birdlife. With these goals in mind, the foundation annually awards a scholarship trip to the Kachemak Bay Shorebird festival held each May in Homer, Alaska.
My journey began when I was informed about the opportunity to obtain a scholarship to attend the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Alaska. As soon as I found out, I started to fill out the application and to think of an interesting topic for my presentation to Festival participants.
I knew the scholarship supported students who had worked with shorebirds, and it quickly occurred to me to give a talk about the birds that come to Marismas Nacionales, Mexico. I thought that topic would be attractive because these are international species that migrate every year, all around the continent, and Alaska is one of their principal breeding destinations.
I was very excited and put all my effort into making it possible. It had never occurred to me that I would have the opportunity to get to know these kinds of sites where birds continue their lifecycle, but I put forth my best effort to make it happen. One month later, I received the exciting news that I had been chosen to receive the scholarship and would have the opportunity to participate in the Festival. I was thrilled with the news and immediately started to process the necessary documents, like passport and VISA. I must confess that I was a little nervous about this journey, as I had never traveled so far away from Mexico. In addition, I didn´t know anyone else who would be at the festival, but Jennie Duberstein from the Sonoran Joint Venture gave me the confidence to do it.
My flight reached Alaska around 11pm, and as I noticed daylight on the horizon, even at this late hour, I began to realize how special of an experience this was going to be. When I arrived at the Anchorage Airport, Lisa and Bob Dittrick from Wilderness Birding immediately recognized me and I had the pleasure of meeting them and spending a night in their comfortable home in the middle of the snowy mountains at Eagle River, Alaska. The next morning we had a nice talk and got in some birding in the comfort of their backyard, where I saw my first lifers: Gray Jay and Common Redpoll. After that we went to some beautiful birding spots. I especially liked Arctic Valley, where we went in search of ptarmigan.
After enjoying a day of birding with the Dittrick’s, I continued my journey to my final destination: Homer. The flight Anchorage to Homer was amazing because I had the opportunity to appreciate snowy mountains, rivers, frozen lakes, and the sea from air. When I arrived in Homer I had a warm welcome from the Islands and Oceans Center staff.
The next day I had the pleasure of enjoying a boat trip of Kachemak Bay with Jeff Gordon (President of the American Birding Association) and his wife Liz. This was a very special day for me because I saw a lot of seabirds I had never seen before, including Parakeet Auklet, Marbled Murrelet, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, and others. We were the first ones to spot Tufted Puffins near Gull Island, and it was incredible to see those beautiful species in their natural habitats. Sharing this experience with Liz and Jeff was marvelous. In the afternoon I finally meet with Mike and Tom Schantz (who had given me the scholarship) at the Islands and Oceans Center. I then had some time to get to know the Center and really enjoyed the interactive and realistic way they show Alaskan wildlife.
I had one day to myself, and decided to rent a bicycle and tour the spit of Kachemak Bay, I packed up my camera, binoculars, and field guide and was on my way. I made frequent stops to look for shorebirds. I spotted my first Pacific Golden Plover as it ran along the beach. Then a flock of 800 Dunlins flew by together, showing their breeding plumage. I also witnessed a totally wild scene when a Peregrine Falcon buzzed me, hunting a Northern Pintail. When I got to the end of the spit I found a fisherman, along with a couple of Bald Eagles that were standing nearby, hoping for some fish. I was surprised to have those wild eagles that close; it was incredible and really gave me the chance to see up close, the differences in plumage between a juvenile and adult Bald Eagle. Beautiful!
The next day began early, when I got up to do some birding on a nearby farm. This was pleasant because Sandhill Cranes gathered there every year; this year was no exception, and the place was full of Sandhills feeding and displaying. That afternoon the moment I had been anticipating (and perhaps dreading, just a little bit) arrived: my presentation at the Islands and Oceans Center. Although I was nervous, I felt really good afterwards. The audience asked me a lot of questions and was very interested in the large numbers and diversity of shorebirds in Marismas Nacioanales. After my talk I received many congratulations and was very satisfied and happy to share the importance of the area where I live at an international shorebird festival. In the end, I was able to relax and just enjoy the rest of my stay in Homer.
I also had the opportunity to visit Anchor River with the Schantz family. That was a particularly cold day, with lots of wind, but I really enjoyed the weather, which I had never experienced before. I also spotted some lifers, including Pacific Loon and Lapland Longspur. Overall it was a really nice day with the Schantz family.
My return to Anchorage was over land rather than by plane, and this leg of the trip was special to me because I got to know more about the Alaska landscape. We spent five hours driving and all around were wildlife, beautiful views, lakes, rivers, sea, and birds like Trumpeter Swan, Double-crested Cormorant, Arctic Tern, and more. We also enjoyed views of a Grizzly Bear eating on the Kenai riverbank. This felt like Alaska’s nature giving me a beautiful farewell gift.
This was truly a life-changing experience for me. I hope the Schantz Memorial Foundation keeps going with their program supporting students who love birding and conservation. I also want to thank the Sonoran Joint Venture for the hard work and support towards the knowledge about and conservation of birds and their habitats, as well as the American Birding Association for supporting my scholarship application.
This trip broadened my understanding about the incredible migratory journeys these birds undergo to complete their life cycle, conquering countries, climates, and adverse weather. The more I get to know birds, the more I love them and value these wonderful and resilient creatures. I feel more excited than ever, and armed with more tools, to continue pursuing my dream of working to protect the birds and habitats of Mexico so that others have the same opportunity to love and enjoy them.