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"Ultra" rare Eurasian bird discovered along Seward beachfront

Posted: November 25, 2011 - 9:25am
A Redwing huddles against the cold in Seward.
A Redwing huddles against the cold in Seward.

On Nov. 15, Seward resident Jim Herbert was walking the beach on the south side of Lowell Point, exercising his dogs while trying to escape the fierce 60 mile an hour north winds that were sweeping Seward and Resurrection Bay. The south facing beach was relatively sheltered from the full brunt of the north winds but intermittent, gusty winds still swept the cold beach.

During the course of his walk Jim observed a thrush-like bird foraging along the wrack line and water's edge. He thought it odd that a thrush would be on the beach, outside its preferred wooded habitat. Jim attempted to positively identify the thrush but the bird actively foraged away from him and he was unable to acquire a completely satisfying, diagnostic view. He reasoned that it probably was merely an odd American Robin, being that Seward does retain a few small flocks each winter, but something didn't seem quite right about the bird's appearance and behavior.

Consequently, he relayed his observation to other Seward birders who re-found and photographed the bird the next day in the same area. The identity of the bird was still in question among Seward birders until photographs of the bird were circulated over the internet and the identity of the bird was confirmed as a Redwing (Turdus iliacus), its name derived from its orange-red underwing. It is a common and widespread thrush of Europe and Asia and closely related to our native American Robin (Turdus migratorius).

Not only was this the first documented occurrence of this species in Seward and the Kenai Peninsula but remarkably it was also the first Alaska state record and only the second record for western North America! Of the species' 15 appearances on our continent all but two have occurred in easternmost Canada and the northeastern U.S. -- the first being an individual that wintered in Olympia, Wash., in 2004-5 and the second being the bird currently in Seward.

Eastern sightings have mostly occurred in the past eight years and are attributed to the species western expansion into Greenland. The Seward bird most likely originated in the Russian Far East during fall migration when a powerful weather system swept a number of Asiatic birds eastward toward western Alaska resulting in a significant "fallout" of Asiatics in the Aleutian Islands. Being storm-tossed the disoriented Redwing ultimately traveled south and east to the Kenai Peninsula instead of south and west toward Iran. Regardless of where the bird originated and how it got here, in the language of avid birders, who live and die for even a brief glimpse of a rare bird, the Redwing is a North American "MEGA"-rarity and an Alaskan "ULTRA"-rarity.

The Redwing breeds from Greenland and Iceland, eastward across the northern half of Europe and Asia to the Kolyma River of central Siberia. Its preferred breeding habitats include coniferous and deciduous forests as well as tundra willow and birch scrub. A migratory species, it winters in western, central, and eastern Europe, northwest Africa eastward to the Black and Caspian Seas to northern Iran. With a breeding range of four million square miles and a spring breeding population of 65 to 130 million adult birds the species is abundant, the population stable to expanding.

The diet of the Redwing includes various invertebrates including insects, earthworms, spiders, millipedes, and occasionally small crustaceans and mollusks. In fall and winter it sustains itself primarily on seeds and the fruits of ivy, holly, juniper, apple, buckthorn, currants, ash and others. Interestingly enough the Seward Redwing has been observed foraging along the shoreline where small crustaceans and mollusks are present and actively feeding on berries from local plantings of the exotic European ash (Sorbus aucuparia), exotic to our continent but native to the Redwing's range.

Whether local residents realize it, the Seward Redwing is a celebrity among avid North American birders whose eyes are currently focused on the Kenai Peninsula. Numerous birders from around Alaska, including my family, have already made the trip to see the bird, and birders from Outside are checking the costs and feasibility of flights. The foremost question in their minds is - "Will this bird persist long enough for me to make a successful trip to see it?"

The sight of birders lined up with expensive binoculars, spotting scopes, and large-lensed cameras all focused on a rather nondescript bird may be novel to most Kenai Peninsula residents. However it is commonplace in the world of avid birders intent on chasing rare birds and expanding their "life" lists. As birding grows in popularity and the Kenai Peninsula becomes a larger birding destination, larger numbers of birders will descend on the occasional local rarity and area residents will inevitably witness this unique birding phenomenon firsthand.

Toby Burke is a refuge biological technician who is intrigued by the status and distribution of Alaska and Kenai Peninsula birds and enjoys birding with his wife and family.

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