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Originally published Friday, September 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Arctic Wings": Burke Museum photo exhibit is "eco-field trip"

The "Arctic Wings" exhibit at Seattle's Burke Museum puts the feathered population of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on display.

Special to The Seattle Times

Exhibition preview

"Arctic Wings: Miracle of Migration"

10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through Dec. 31, Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington campus, Seattle; $5-$8, free to members, UW staff/faculty/students and children under 5 (206-543-7907 or www.burkemuseum.org).

And you think air travel is exhausting. The Arctic Tern, one of the species of birds shown through luminous photography in the Burke Museum's newest exhibit, "Arctic Wings: Miracle of Migration," flies from the northernmost to the southernmost part of the globe and back again each year. That's a round trip of nearly 22,000 miles.

And what do such long-distance travelers do when they reach their destination? It depends, actually. Award-winning nature photographer Subhankar Banerjee's bull-breasted sandpiper, handsomely captured in the dim-but-never-quite-setting light of an Arctic summer, performs a "courtship display" at a communal site where females have their pick of mates to love and leave.

Other images reveal that the red-necked phalarope female lets her man (or a couple of them) incubate the eggs, and then hang out with the chicks. And there's at least one traditional family out there — the monogamous yellow-billed loons.

Who would've known? Not the politicians who've recently described the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a "flat, white nothingness" (former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton) or a "barren wasteland" (Alaska Senator Ted Stevens); nor many nonbirders in the Pacific Northwest.

"Birding is popular here, but not many people realize that Puget Sound birds may not be from here," says the Burke's Julia Swan.

In partnership with Mountaineers Books, which published "Arctic Wings: Birds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge" in 2006, the Burke's exhibit aims to illuminate the daily lives of some of the nearly 200 species of birds that live and migrate in the refuge. They are also parents, children and weary fellow travelers, who suffer injustices greater than being asked to pay $3 for a bag of pretzels on a crowded flight.

"It was Banerjee's dream to use birds as a theme to tell the Arctic story in a different way," says Mountaineers Books publisher Helen Cherullo. "Their gestures, life cycles, and habitats tell a complex and rich story about migration."

For the book, Cherullo and editor Stephen Brown chose 200 images from thousands by photographers including Hugh Rose, a Denali National Park guide and geologist; Mark Wilson, who has published work in National Geographic; Seattleite Paul Bannick; and "The Art of Bird Photography" author Arthur Morris. They then distilled the selections further for the exhibit. It became "a commingling of missions between the Burke and Mountaineers to illuminate [one of] the last remaining wild places in North America." It's one, she says, where you can still hear only the sound of nature.

You can also hear it while browsing the dramatically lit photography and video by Arctic resident Arthur C. Smith III. Redmond resident Martyn Stewart — whom Cherullo met in a D.C. elevator — provides a soundtrack of Arctic Refuge birdsong that adds much to the sense of immersion you get in this small, but dense, showcase.

Cherullo envisioned "Arctic Wings" as an "eco-field trip" to inspire students and children as well as birders. Processing the "true cost" of ANWR's development can inspire feelings of helplessness, but the beauty and resilience on display shows that that region — and in fact, most of the world — is still very much for the birds.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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