112th Christmas Bird Count: New circle means new birds

Refuge Notebook
A McKay's Bunting (left) and Snow Bunting (right) on the Kenai Flats.

The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is an early-winter continental bird census where volunteers count and identify all birds they observe within a 15-mile diameter count circle, on one day, between December 14 and January 5. Annually, there are approximately 60,000 participants counting in over 2,000 circles throughout the United States and Canada. The latest Soldotna CBC was held on December 17, 2011.


The Soldotna CBC count circle was established in 1983. This past year, it was moved for the first time in its history, technically establishing a new circle. All of Soldotna, most of Kenai, the northern-most portions of Kasilof, and areas in between fall within the new circle. It was shifted due west 3.75 miles to encompass the Kenai and Kasilof Flats and increase the surveyable Cook Inlet coastline from 3 to 13 miles. The new circle still includes two-thirds of the former count area, nearly all boreal habitat, but now enables counters to survey productive estuarine and marine habitats. This move both permits sampling of a greater diversity of avian habitats and increases participants' interest, which is critical to the local CBC's long-term viability as it was defunct for seven years in the 1990s.

Twenty-four participants, in 13 parties, spent a total of 42 party hours in the field, on foot and by car. During that time they covered 307 total miles. In addition to 24 field counters, six feeder watchers spent six hours counting their yard and feeder birds. With less than six hours between sunrise and sunset, count day is a race against time. Participants rush through assigned areas frenetically searching for birds before darkness descends, essentially terminating the survey. After dark, counters who do continue are fortunate to tally any additional species, such as nocturnal owls.

Weather conditions for this year's count could be summed up as mild, humid, calm, and gloomy. Temperatures were 10 to 15 degrees above normal -- Kenai experienced a low of 27 F and a high of 35 F. The entire area was dominated by a heavy, day-long overcast but visibility was good.

The mild winter weather made for very poor bird attendance at area feeders. This, combined with barren ornamental fruit-bearing trees, a poor spruce cone crop, and no major invasions of irruptive species resulted in an overall poor showing for passerine bird species. Though land birds were lacking in diversity and abundance, numerous open water leads along freshwater sections of the Kenai River and nearly ice-free saline waters of the lower Kasilof and Kenai Rivers and Cook Inlet made for favorable conditions for waterfowl and marine birds.

A total of 2,595 individual birds were tallied on count day and 39 species were recorded during count week (December 14-20). Three species were recorded during the survey for the very first time -- White-winged Scoter, Common Loon, and Common Murre -- not coincidentally in estuarine and marine habitats in the newly expanded count area.

These three species would not typically be found this far north in the Cook Inlet in winter but an unusually mild December and lightly-iced Cook Inlet permitted a minor incursion of marine birds into our area.

Interestingly, since the count period, sea ice conditions in Cook Inlet have returned to normal but observations of marine birds species generally averse to sea ice have continued in our area through the extreme of winter. There were at least four documented local sightings of Common Loons, one Red-necked Grebe, and numerous Common Murres this winter, exceptional since these species normally are concentrated in the ice-free waters of Kachemak Bay and lower Cook Inlet. Quite likely these species are more dispersed this winter due to inadequate food resources in their core wintering areas.

Other count highlights included observations of Slaty-backed Gull, American Robin, Townsend's Solitaire, and McKay's Bunting. An adult Slaty-backed Gull, an Asiatic species, has remarkably been recorded on the last seven consecutive CBC's! American Robin, Townsend's Solitaire, and McKay's Bunting were recorded for only the second time in count history.

A cumulative total of 68 species has now been recorded since the inception of the Soldotna CBC. Outstanding for a count conducted primarily in an "impoverished" sub-arctic, winter, boreal biome. To see the complete Soldotna CBC results go to http://netapp.audubon.org/cbcobservation/ObservationCircle.aspx, under "Current Year Results By Count" enter count code "AKSN" and submit.

For 112 years, citizen scientists armed with bird identification field guides, checklists, binoculars, and spotting scopes have annually endured the elements to participate in their local CBC for the enjoyment of the outdoors, the appreciation of birdlife, the excitement of friendly competition, the camaraderie, the tradition, and the knowledge that their efforts contribute to assessing bird populations and help guide conservation efforts on a continental scale.  Please considering participating next year -- and bring your kids!

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. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.