Jasmine Gil listens to recordings of the morning chorus as part of a bird monitoring project for the Alaska Whale Foundation (Photo/Katherine Rose).

The Alaska Whale Foundation is growing wings. Since establishing a field station in Warm Springs Bay, the AWF has been able to open its doors to other areas of study. KCAW’s Katherine Rose recently took the daylong cruise around Baranof Island to Warm Springs Bay  to learn about the Alaska Whale Foundation’s new bird monitoring project.

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It’s 9 PM on a Friday night, and in a lamp lit lodge in remote Alaska, four twenty-somethings are having a bit of a party. They’re sitting at kitchen table, passing around a bowl…of whipped coconut cream.

Sounds of whipping cream, laughter

When the whipper gets tired, the bowl is passed to the next person. If they can get the cream to set up, it will top a fruit crisp, the dessert for tonight’s family dinner.

“Jazzie, we have to do this, it’s our last task as a group, if we don’t accomplish this it’s like we never existed!”

Whipping noise fades

They’ve been out here in sparsely populated Warm Springs Bay for the last two months, doing research for the Alaska Whale Foundation. Even though they’re each working on different projects, they’ve figured out how to work together.

When they’re out there in the water I need to know where they’re going. Even when they’re gone I’m thinking about them all the time, like what am I going to cook for you guys?”

That’s Jasmine Gil, or Jazzie as her fellow researchers call her. She’s into birds. Seabirds mostly, but since she started her project with the AWF, songbirds have captivated her interest. Though the AWF primarily works with whales, this year they’ve taken on new research — the cataloging of bird songs.

Sounds of birds in Warm Springs

They collect bird songs and calls using two recorders placed in different habitats in Warm Springs. By monitoring and cataloging the songs, researchers can identify changes or patterns that can point to larger environmental shifts

“Old growth logging has one of the big effects, why you would see a change in the birds. This is their habitat and if you take it away you see changes in the birds, to be blunt,” says Gil. 

They collect the memory cards from each recorder once a week. Then, back at the station, Jasmine listens through each recording, identifying as many birds as she can. From the Pacific Wren

Sound of Pacific Wren

To the Dark-Eyed Junco,

Sound of the Dark-Eyed Junco

Sometimes when Jasmine listens to an entire recording, all of the sounds can be quite overwhelming. Looking at her notes from the first day cataloging sounds, that much is clear.

I had identified a duck sound. And then at 3:49 in the morning I identified some kind of dinosaur. It probably was like a loon or something,” Jasmine says as she laughs. 

Her notes have really evolved as she’s trained her ear to listen for specific calls

“As I got more into it I would indicate, ‘oh the calls are distant, background noise is prevalent during the first three harmonics.”

She isolates each bird song and puts it through a program, a recognizer. Eventually, she and the researchers who take her place, will collect and isolate all of the bird calls in the area. Then the recognizer will be able to play through each daily recording and identify every bird, saving the researchers hours of listening time. And Warm Springs Bay is the perfect place for this kind of project. Why?

Sound of quiet Warm Springs Bay with birds chirping

“They don’t have any competition or any demand to change they way they’re currently calling or singing. You can really tell around the city or in an urban environment  that the dusk and dawn chorus is significantly affected in those areas.”

Jasmine doesn’t just listen to the recordings at the field station. Sometimes she goes out for the Dawn Chorus, at 4 AM.

Sounds of dawn chorus

On these mornings, Jasmine’s had some pretty special moments, quietly lying beneath a tree listening for the different birds,

“The sun was coming up, it was going from bright orange, magenta, to yellow. I was just sitting there and was really quiet, and all of a sudden a bird perched on my knee. It was magical, I started crying, I was just so happy to be there.”

Happy to be there, and sad to leave. The Alaska Whale Foundation field station works on a tight rotation. Jasmine left Warm Springs Bay at the end of last week, and a new researcher will be taking her place. There’s no word yet on where the data from the bird monitoring project will be compiled, or how long it will take. It may be a while, because science can be slow. Which is why every fruit crisp must count.

Sound of them eating the dessert, laughter.