Lunchtime walk gives port biologist her bald eagle fix

Port of Tacoma biologist Jenn Stebbings says watching bald eagles on her walks at the Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands is "one of the best things about this place."
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Port of Tacoma biologist Jenn Stebbings says watching bald eagles on her walks at the Gog-le-hi-te Wetlands is "one of the best things about this place."
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Port’s staff biologist on watching hawks, eagles, salmon and other critters

By Derrick Nunnally

dnunnally@thenewstribune.com

March 29, 2017 10:00 AM

Amid the ships, trucks and various heavy cargo in constant motion at the Port of Tacoma, Jenn Stebbings has an incongruous job: making sure birds, fish and other creatures can coexist with the industrial landscape.

Stebbings is the port’s staff biologist. A Seattle native, she’s worked at the port since 2012. Officially, her job requires closely monitoring port wildlife to help the environmental analysis required for development projects in the Tacoma Tideflats.

But it’s a lot more fun than that.

On a sunny March afternoon, she led a News Tribune reporter on a tour of two of the largest of the port’s 23 open areas for wildlife.

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They range, she said, from bird-nesting areas of less than an acre to expanses of more than 40 acres, where coyotes, eagles, otters and other land creatures gambol beneath bald eagles and red-tailed hawks.

She said 147 species of birds have been spotted in the Gog-le-hi-te Wetland, which the port began converting a former landfill to in 1985.

“I think a lot of people would be surprised to know how much biodiversity there is here,” Stebbings said.

She stopped talking and pointed up toward an unexpected bird song coming from a tree branch.

“Oh, wow,” she said.

It was, she explained from behind a pair of binoculars, her first sighting of a bird called a black phoebe, which normally ranges no closer to Puget Sound than Southern Oregon.

Stebbings, excited, said the encounter was a prime example of the benefits of her unusual job, which she also blogs about regularly.

Most of the human-assisted habitats at the port, she said, are geared toward salmon conservation.

She described her role in a conversation that extended from the tour to an online conversation afterward.

Q: Does the variety of wildlife around the port make this an entertaining job? You’ve blogged about gulls, Canada geese, beavers, ospreys and seals, among other creatures.

A: It’s such a unique working environment, and I’m constantly surprised. They’re just endlessly fascinating to me. It doesn’t get old.

Q: What’s the most unexpected wildlife encounter you’ve experienced at the port?

A: Before (the black phoebe), I would have to say a chinook salmon that made its way into newly constructed stream channels at our Upper Clear Creek mitigation site within days of connecting the channels with the rest of the creek was earlier than we expected.

Q: What’s a big highlight of the nature scene around the port?

A: Every other year, when it’s a pink salmon year, some of them come up the Sitcum Waterway and get lost in the dead end.

The predators really come out and follow them. We can see it out our (port office) windows. Everybody just lines up and waits for them to try to find their way back out. In the office, you hear a lot of “Ooh, did you see that?”

Q: Which habitats around the port get the most (human) visitors, and which ones don’t get as much notice as they deserve?

A: Gog-le-hi-te wetland complex definitely gets the most human visitors. It has easy access and nice, flat walking paths. Gog-le-hi-te 1 is also our first habitat site, built 30 years ago.

One of our lesser-known habitat sites is the Dick Gilmur Shoreline Access area, located along Marine View Drive. It has a car-top boat launch so folks can kayak or canoe around Inner Commencement Bay. The kayak launch is the first piece of a much bigger restoration and public access project that the port has been working on for several years.

Q: How much response have you gotten from blogging about your findings at the port?

A: I really don’t know how many people actually read my blog; I don’t keep track of the numbers.

All the responses I have gotten have been generally positive, and I am pleasantly surprised when people approach me to tell me they like my blog or they identified with a particular story.

It is fun to write and share the stories that can only happen down here. It’s an added bonus if people actually read them and learn something from them.

Q: Do people you tell about your job — or folks you encounter at work the port — express much surprise at the amount of biodiversity in what’s a largely industrial area?

A: They do, and that’s one of the best parts of my job!

It’s a rare opportunity to be able to connect with people and share with them just how much life and diversity surrounds them, even if they don’t see it.

Our critters may not be the sexy, charismatic megafauna that one would find in a pristine ecosystem, but they have adapted and flourished in their somewhat unorthodox environment. It wouldn’t be surprising if I saw a great blue heron, a beaver, a deer and a school of anchovies all within the same day.

We have seals and sea lions that lounge on oil boom and oversee the operations, osprey that nest on light poles in the middle of a rail yard and coyotes that like to follow behind our tractors to scoop up an easy lunch.

It is truly the most unique place I have ever worked, and I get to share that with people. It’s pretty cool!

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

PUBLIC ACCESS AT THE PORT

Want to see the wildlife for yourself? Find the list of public access sites at www.portoftacoma.com/community/explore-port.