In the Anchorage area, Potter's Marsh is probably the best known local wildlife reserve. It contains a large freshwater marsh of about 550 acres that is used as a nesting area by several species of waterfowl, shore birds, one nesting pair of bald eagles, and, most notably, hundreds of mew gulls and arctic terns. Anyone interested in birds knows the story of the arctic tern which migrates from the antarctic to the arctic every year to nest and raise their young. That is a journey of over 20,000 miles(32,000km) round trip ("return" if you prefer).
This is the fourth spring I've lived in Anchorage but the first time I've spent a lot of time at Potter's photographing the terns and other species. I've been monitoring their progress as a natural consequence of figuring how to optimize photo ops. The terns nest mainly on low, dry spots in the marsh. The surrounding estuary provides ready access to fishing in close proximity to the nests. Once the chicks hatch there is essentially a non-stop feeding frenzy by the birds to gather enough food for the growing chicks which fledge in just a few weeks and start the long journey south with the adults.
I've been visiting the marsh every other day or so on my way to work in the mornings. Thursday was the first time I spotted a chick in a nest near one of the pullouts where I stop. Then Friday morning, disaster struck. Early Friday morning we had a mild earthquake, not unusual for this area. But the quake apparently ruptured an ice damn that was retaining the water in a lake in the mountains that is the headwaters for the creek that feeds the marsh. A few hours later the creek was a raging torrent, washing out the bridge on a secondary road, running several families from their homes, and causing the waters in Potter's Marsh to raise by a foot or so.
Unfortunately, even this modest rise in the water level was devastating to the nesting birds. Thousands of yet unhatched eggs were flooded in the nests and newly hatched chicks either drowned or were driven from the protection of the nest out into the open where they can be spotted by the herring gulls or various raptors or have their little bodies overheated by the harsh sun.
I went down this morning and one desperate tern couple had successfully abandoned their nest with a single surviving chick but unwisely chose the area around a parking area to re-establish their home. They were going about the business of feeding the little one and aggressively attempting to defend it from people, vehicles, gulls, etc. One of the aspects of nature photography that is both thrilling and upsetting is witnessing Darwinian theory played out. Here are a few images of the unfortunate family.
Tern attacking an unsuspecting photographer who stepped out of his vehicle.
The chick came out from under parent's wing to get a morsel from the second parent returning from forraging.
Mom staring me down.
One of the few species of bird whose chicks aren't extraordinarily ugly.
Sorry little guy. Not yet...