Birds on the brain

Locals brave weather for 'Big Sit' event

Several bodies huddled around spotting scopes as faces scraped by the frosty October morning searched the treelines and water’s edges.


The conversation among those birders gathered Saturday morning turned naturally to old stories of birds previously spotted and other favorite, exotic trips into the field to observe winged creatures.

Like lightning, however, the chit chat was broken by tweets from the trees.

“Oh, what was that?” said Toby Burke, a Kenai National Wildlife Refuge wildlife technician, with a hushed enthusiasm.

“What did you hear?” said retired fisheries biologist Ken Tarbox twirling around and scanning the nearest tree.

“Ruby-crowned kinglet. Listen, you hear it going, ‘chidit, chidit?’” Burke said. “Right there over near the sign.”

The flock of birders scampered over to watch the tiny kinglet hop from branch to branch, locating him again and again pointing through thick gloves. As quick as the chirps began, they ended as the bird fled through the air, over the boat launch and beyond Skilak Lake.

“That’s a good look at him,” Tarbox said with a big grin.

The start to Saturday’s Big Sit event — a national movement where birders gather in a 17-foot diameter circle for any period up to 24 hours to record birds they see or hear — was quick and cold, Tarbox said.

Within three and a half hours, participants had spotted 21 species of birds. Temperatures held below freezing for much of the morning — the early ones were the “only ones crazy enough,” Tarbox said with a laugh.

The event was the third so far at the Refuge and was hosted in partnership with the Keen Eye Peninsula Birders club.

Burke said about 25 adults and 30 youth attended the event and observed 30 species from the circle, seven of which were not previously recorded in 2010 or 2011.

Of the 493 species of birds documented in Alaska, 154 have been spotted in the Refuge and 288 on the Kenai Peninsula all together, said Biological Technician Todd Eskelin.

The majority of the birds spotted Saturday, Burke said, are migratory.

“Some of these birds ... they are moving more and more into our area for the winter here,” he said taking a break from his scope. “A lot of them are moving in from further north and these are birds that seldom go south.”

The Big Sit event is rather late for Alaska’s big migration, but not in the Lower 48, Burke said.

“You can imagine that in the mid and southern latitudes it is prime time,” he said. “They are getting loads of migratory birds coming through, where for us, I mean, our prime time was earlier. But still we see some good stuff out here.”

Participants were armed with 8- or 10-power binoculars and had access to spotting scopes that reached 20-, 30- and 40-power.

“You just kind of scan, turn the scope and scan across the water until you see birds sitting on the water,” Tarbox said. “Of course, if we see something flying we can put the scope on them pretty easily.”

A few minutes later an adult bald eagle streaked down to the trees.

“Oh, here one comes,” Tarbox said. “Can you get on it? Here’s a little trick, if you see them coming out there, and he looks like he is going to cross the treeline, well start at the treeline and work back where you think he is headed and let him fly into your line of sight.”

Interpretive Park Ranger Leah Eskelin said the Refuge’s annual Big Sit is the only one established so far in Alaska.

On Friday, Eskelin said birding is popular on the Peninsula and birders have created a social fabric to support their hobby. Birding is a step beyond casual observation of an area and its wildlife, she said.

“You see them all day, every day,” she said. “There is something pretty special about being able to identify what kind of bird you are looking at because all of them are very interesting and are unique species and have cool back stories. You may find a shorebird walking along the beach and you don’t really recognize that they just flew non-stop from Hawaii.”

Todd Eskelin said the area’s diverse geography also benefits local birders.

“We have super rich seabird colonies and a lot of migrant seabirds from the gulf that will make their way into the Kenai Peninsula waters,” he said. “Then we have more like Interior Alaska conditions up in the alpine.”

Leah Eskelin said those unique combinations can afford daily viewing opportunities others wait a lifetime for.

“There are people with life lists and we have birds that we consider kind of our typical back yard birds ... birds that you and I could see 20 times in a summer if we wanted to and people will go their whole lives hoping to see one,” she said.

Brian Smith can be reached at


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