For the past several years I have been highlighting the bird watchers (birders) who, through dedication and perseverance, are able to see more species than anyone else on the Kenai Peninsula and then take the time to enter those sightings in eBird. Ebird is a user-friendly web application in which people can keep track of birds they see anywhere in the world. Each year, the number of species seen edges higher than the previous year, establishing a new record. We are getting ever closer to one person seeing 200 different bird species on the Kenai Peninsula in one calendar year.
In 2011, Laura Burke crushed the single season record by documenting 182 species of birds on the Kenai Peninsula. She broke the previous record by 27 species. Her sightings helped push the cumulative number of species seen on the peninsula last year to a record high of 211. We know there are a lot of different bird species on the Kenai, but I bet very few of you thought there would be over 200 different species seen in a single year. Laura's accomplishments are truly inspiring and worthy of a future article on just what it takes to be an elite birder while raising a large family (9 kids!). For now I just want to relay a situation that recently prompted my need to tell the rest of the story.
While sitting in my man cave, a few of my hunting buddies and I were talking about birds. Mind you most of the discussion was about looking at them on the dinner table, but there came a point where the topic turned to these crazy people who are out running around doing Big Sits, 24-hour listing contests, and Big Years. The general consensus was that these were a bunch of wealthy elitists who had few social skills and needed something more productive to do. Fortunately, I was there to pipe in on how productive these "games" are for our knowledge of birds.
Last month, I summarized all of the arrival and departure dates for migrant bird species on the Kenai Peninsula through 2011. I also extracted arrival and departure information from eBird (www.ebird.org). I was astounded to find that of the 285 species found on the Kenai Peninsula, 176 were "migratory" and had not been documented in every month of the year. Even if a species were mostly migratory but some individuals had overwintered on the Kenai and been documented in all 12 months, they were classified as residents.
Of those 176 species that were still classified as migratory, we had broken the all-time record for earliest or latest date on the Kenai for 62 of those species just in the past 5 years. Additionally, 6 species changed in status from migratory to resident as they had been documented in all 12 months. That means there were record changes noted in 40 percent of the migratory species on the Kenai Peninsula in the past 5 years.
There are a host of potential reasons for these records being broken. Some records may be related to climate changes on the Kenai. Bird watching is a growing sport and more people watching and reporting produces more records. Technological changes in both optics and data management make a huge difference in the likelihood of a bird being detected and recorded. Some species have benefited from our ornamental plantings and supplemental feeding. Regardless of the reasons, it is obvious that there are some changes in the timing of birds arriving and departing from the Kenai and these changes seem to be happening more frequently in recent years. We also added 13 new species that had never been seen on the Kenai Peninsula, some which had only been seen in Alaska a few times.
Two things were very apparent from my data mining exercise. First, we are seeing changes in the bird communities on the Kenai Peninsula. Secondly, without the games and contests birders dream up to make it fun, we would never know that these changes were occurring. The foundation of early bird conservation was concerned private citizens and it will be carried into the future by these same groups. So when you hear a story about some crazy guy driving all over the Peninsula trying to break the 200 species mark for the year, think a little before you judge. These incidental sightings may carry little value compared to a well-designed statistically-based study but, when pooled with everyone's incidental sightings, they can be a powerful tool.
Congratulations to Laura for her accomplishments last year! Now let's see if anyone can knock her off that pedestal in 2012.
Todd Eskelin is a Biological Technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He specializes in birds and serves as the eBird reviewer for the Kenai Peninsula. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.