Whistle Bird and the Art of Pishing: Day Sixteen on the Alaska Road Trip

Today was our bonus day, given to us by the breakdown of our planned ferry, the Columbia. We went birding at Mendenhall Wetlands on EVAR, the Emergency Vehicle Access Road.

Birding by the airport.

It started out about as picturesque as it sounds: airplanes bearing down above our heads, float planes taking off from the “liquid runway” next to the paved one.

The morning sun over the riverbank made for another set of shadow dancers.

Soon, however, we were past the aviation center. We saw savannah sparrows, a northern harrier, great blue herons, dowitchers,  and chestnut-backed chickadees. An iceberg floated out the brackish river, and a harbor seal poked her head above the surface.

Crows pick apart a salmon carcass.

There's a clear difference between a glaucous-winged gull...

... and the mew gull. Doesn't he look like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons?!

Dawww, a baby song sparrow.

Savannah sparrow.
Greater yellowlegs.


Best birdies of the day... we think we saw six Baird’s sandpipers. (Ornithologists, please comment!)

This looks like the book's description of "silvery with black spots" to me.

Dark gray legs, short black beak.

Marna met up with us for a lunch of tacos and enchiladas on the waterfront, and I got a stupendous surprise: my friend Sarah (we studied abroad together in the Galapagos Islands) was in town! She stayed at my family’s house in Seattle earlier this year, so I was ecstatic to get to see her hometown, too.

Two friends reunited at Sheep Creek.

She took my mom and me up a steep climb to Sheep Creek Ridge through majestic green rainforest and alpine shrubbery. We tasted bitter highbush cranberries, stuck our faces in the creek, and finally turned around at a cottonwood grove.

Jane and Nina in the cottonwood grove.

We rounded one corner and heard a piercing shriek whistle. Sarah, startled, replied with a nearly identical shriek. We looked at each other. What was that?!

Jane started pishing, a birding technique where you say, “PSH PSH PSH!” and the birds (supposedly) emerge from their hiding spots out of curiosity. Suddenly, the whistle bird let out a perfect whistle! A blue Steller’s jay flew right up to us, and two fox sparrows nearly landed at our feet. I guess pishing does work! But the whistle bird never showed herself, and she is still a mystery.

Fox sparrow attracted by our pishing.

Marna served us another delicious dinner of lamb and homemade applesauce. Since our ferry didn’t board til 11:30 pm, Sarah invited us to spend a quiet evening by her fireplace. Sarah’s mom, Sarah, Jane and I had a great time reminiscing about the Amazon Rainforest and discussing their upcoming trip to Ireland in only two days.

Then I got another super surprise: my friend from Whitman and Sweets-co-captain Marlena paid us a visit! Juneau was the best part of our trip so far because we got to see it with locals and reunite with old friends.

At this point the day had grown long (just like this blog post), but we couldn’t sleep yet. We had a ferry to catch! It was a couple hours late, so we waited in line while Jane snoozed and I wrote postcards to the pop radio station.

The day held one surprise for us yet: once on the ferry, we went to the Purser’s Office to determine which cabin was ours.

“I’m sorry,” she told us, “but it looks like you don’t have a cabin on this ship.” Uh oh. Would we be sleeping outside with no sleeping bags or pads? With some pleading and kindness from our understanding purser, we managed to rent a four-berth cabin, just until we arrived in Ketchikan. Good enough – at least we will sleep tonight.

Knock knock.

A half-hour after we went to bed (so around 2 am) the night watchman knocked on our door. “Do you have a red Prius?” he asked.

I’d left the dome light on from writing postcards in the waiting lot. Down to the car deck I went, in my pajamas, to put Prius to bed. Finally, we were ALL tucked in and ready to sleep.

End of day summary:
  • Day of road trip: 16 
  • Start: Juneau, Alaska, United States 
  • Miles traveled: 50 
  • Hours driven: 1 
  • Favorite bird sighting: Baird’s sandpiper 
  • End: Malaspina ferry (Juneau), Alaska, United States