Archive for May, 2009

Migration Run

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

There is a northerly race underway. Flocks and flocks of shorebirds are impressively winging their way to sub-arctic and arctic nesting grounds on the soft tundra. The race is among tens of thousands of shorebirds. For many, the prize is to simply survive the migration, set up a territory, breed, lay a clutch of eggs, raise the young and then hurry back to the southern hemisphere for another winter.

Over the second weekend of May, I was attending the Annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer Alaska. Hundreds of us two-leggeds gathered there to honor the Olympian efforts of thousands of shorebirds that migrate through this bay every year. The mud flats behind the famed three- mile Homer Spit are rich in invertebrates and that means valuable fuel for staging shorebirds that rest here for the final dash.

I was with two dear Alaskan friends on my first-ever visit to Homer. As we registered for the three-day event, complete with presentations, storytelling, optional field trips and shorebird identification sessions, I found myself agreeing to run in the Annual Migration Run. I figured if these birds could cover thousands of miles to get here, I could certainly shuffle the three-mile run along the Homer Spit. Besides it would be fun to humor the avian athletes as these not-so-efficient two-leggeds huffed by them.

Through the weekend, binoculars and spotting scopes were trained on the mud flats. We marveled at the synchronicity of the tight formations of the wheeling, rising and settling of hundreds and hundreds of tightly bunched western sandpipers and dunlins. And we couldn’t take our eyes off the natty attire of the male Pacific Golden Plover. His jet-black front seems incongruous with spring. And the glacial blaze of white that extends from his head, down his neck and spills out on his flanks couldn’t be more contrasting. If you are lucky he will turn to show that he is not so very monochromatic with his cryptic back sprinkled with golden specks that would excite any Klondike sourdough prospector.

The three plovers we watched hardly looked like they were on the last leg of the most impressive of all shorebird migrations. These birds are second only to the arctic tern in long distance migration. Each spring they cover thousands of miles in non-stop flight over the Pacific Ocean. That means no eating or sleeping for over two days of continuous flight. Prior to their flight they spent a full month eating and putting on fat reserves derived from rich supplies of invertebrates. Literally one third of their body weight is fat before they lift off.

According to a local biologist the plovers we watched had likely wintered in Malay, Polynesia or even Australia. Some think that these plovers helped ancient Polynesians discover the Hawaiian Islands. Suddenly my 700-mile drive from the Yukon to Anchorage seemed puny. These birds are the epitome of efficiency.

In order to complete the feeble migration run, I would need to acquire a spring plumage of sorts on my feet. As I had no running shoes with me, I needed to find something to wear on my feet for the race. The thought of running in sandals or hiking boots seemed ludicrous and painful.

I asked the nice folks at the registration headquarters if there was a thrift store in Homer and we were directed to the local Salvation Army Thrift Store, down the highway a half-mile or so.

Hurrying into the store, I bypassed the temptation of stopping by a rack of fleece clothing and went directly to the shoe corner. Scanning the assemblage of shoes, looking for anything that looked like running shoes, my eyes landed on a navy blue pair of shoes that resembled a hybrid of tennis shoes and clown shoes. Upon further inspection I found that they had flip down roller skates inset into the soles of the shoes. For a whole nanosecond I considered the fun of such shoes, but then I wondered about the course. Would we be running on a hard surface or perhaps, like running sanderlings, we would move up and down the Homer spit.

I finally found a pair of slightly faded, but wholly intact running shoes that were a size 9. I would prefer a size 91/2 but these would do. On the way to the cash register, I couldn’t resist an impressive black cowboy hat for $5.50.
The cowboy hat would not make the run. I’ve never had a real cowboy hat and somehow the time seems right.

Two days later and it was race day. There had been no training in my new shoes. The sun broke behind the ridge that overlooks the bay. There was no wind and the temperature was 40°F. If this were to be a true migratory effort, we would have staged along the shoreline and hoped for a good brisk south wind to push us north in our spring migration. The shorebirds can cover hundreds and hundreds of miles non-stop. And they oftentimes migrate at heights nearly 20,000 feet.

On this perfect flight morning, my 15,040-foot (three mile) migration run required only a single banana before lift off. No sirreee, no fueling on invertebrates or fat reserves for this old bird.

Even though I had not gone for a run of three miles in over five years, the morning was perfect for such an outing. Come to think of it, since I have come to prefer moving my body on a bicycle or cross country skiing rather than running, I haven’t run a continuous nonstop mile in years.

We parked the car near the race start and put on our shoes. It was then that I discovered that my newly acquired running shoes were not a men’s size nine but a women’s size nine. We had twenty minutes before the start. I jammed and crammed my feet into the shoes. Wincing, I wished that I had bound my feet tightly in duct tape the evening before to shrink them up. I tied the shoes loosely and gamely trotted in my reduced feet to the registration area.

There were several cleverly adorned racers wearing shorebird costumes. Two young, svelte women wore tufted puffin masks. The eventual winner of the costume contest wore a large origami swan around her middle with each wing reaching out nearly two feet from her hips. For obvious reasons no one crowded her position as we shuffled to the starting line.

Suddenly we were off. As usual all the young hot shots lifted off very quickly. With my toes curled under the balls of my feet, I tried not to think of my feet and I concentrated on folks ahead of me and slowly made my way forward. As we passed the area where we had watched the plovers the day before, I glanced over the mudflats. The wheeling and leap frogging feeding flocks were nowhere to be seen.

While running I developed my strategy. My toes were curled like a May fiddlehead fern and the bliss of sucking in morning oxygen was offset by pain in the toes. So I simply picked up my pace so that I might finish the race faster and free my ten bent hostages as quickly as possible. Surprisingly, I finished better than I thought I would. I finished 21st out of 137 participants. I was almost exactly five minutes behind the twenty year old who flew the fastest. The two puffin masked young women finished three minutes ahead of me.
But I did beat the origami swan.

After the race, I gave the shoes to one of my Alaskan friends, who informed me that the shoes were a little tight for her. Two days later I noticed three toenails taking on the midnight color of the plover’s breast. Watching a migration is far more memorable and painless.