Refuge notebook: Rare birds punctuate the quiet of winter

Local birders participated in the 113th Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on Saturday, December 15, 2012. The Soldotna count circle overlays portions of Soldotna, Kenai, and Kasilof. Although a respectable total of 35 species were detected during count week (December 12-18), no new or otherwise remarkable species were found.


However, there were record numbers of four resident species, three of which are common and one less so. Notably, 733 Bald Eagles and 433 Common Ravens were tallied, with the overwhelming majority of these two species coming from the Soldotna Landfill. Also, 404 Glaucous-winged Gulls were observed at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers. A flock of five Trumpeter Swans was seen flying over Soldotna.

Poorly stocked bird feeders, largely due to very expensive bird seed, made for very poor bird attendance in residential neighborhoods. The empty feeders, combined with barren ornamental fruit-bearing trees and a very sparse crop of spruce cones, resulted in no major invasions of irruptive species and an overall poor showing for passerine birds. The eight weeks of solidly cold weather that preceded the count certainly had its effect on area birds.

Although the local CBC did not provide any major excitement this year, in retrospect the Kenai Peninsula has had several very notable bird sightings recently that have energized local birders. Starting on September 29, a pair of Ruddy Ducks was found at Kelly Lake on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. This small diving duck has been recorded on the peninsula only a handful of times.

In Homer, on that same day, an Anna’s Hummingbird was discovered at a hummingbird feeder. This bird frequented the feeder daily through November 3. A second Anna’s Hummingbird was discovered at another feeder only seven miles away on November 21. These birds withstood weeks of snow and ice and temperatures in the single digits. Anna’s Hummingbird has become an annual visitor to the Kenai Peninsula during the past 10 years.

A very remarkable Sky Lark was found in the parking lot of the Deep Creek State Recreation Area on October 18. Vagrant Sky Larks occur annually in the western Aleutian and the Bering Sea Islands but this was the first record of the species on the Alaska mainland and the Kenai Peninsula. Observations of this bird persisted until October 22.

A lone Cedar Waxwing appeared in a fruit tree in Seward in the company of an American Robin on October 24, and was later joined by a small flock of Bohemian Waxwings. On New Year’s Day, at least five Cedar Waxwings were found among a winter flock of 300 American Robins in Homer! Like Anna’s Hummingbird, the Cedar Waxwing is a relatively new addition to the peninsula’s avifauna.  It has been found in most winters during the past 10 years usually in the company of American Robins and less frequently with its relative the Bohemian Waxwing. Also seen in this huge flock of Robins was a single Mountain Bluebird. This species has only been documented twice previously on the Kenai Peninsula, the last one in November of 2009 just a few miles away.

A female Hooded Merganser was observed on the Refuge’s Lower Ohmer Lake on November 6. Hooded Mergansers are very rare on the western peninsula with only two previous documented sightings. In Seward, a male Hooded Merganser was found in December and has been observed into January. Singles of both sexes have been seen annually in all seasons in Seward during the last 10 years.

A pair of Bramblings, an Asiatic finch, was found at Lowell Point in Seward on November 17 and is still being seen. Not to be outdone, three Bramblings have just been reported in Homer. Bramblings are the most common Asiatic finch found in Alaska and on the peninsula. Lone birds occur roughly one out of two years here on the peninsula, usually at feeders in winter with sparrows and finches.

Though not on the peninsula, I would be remiss if I did not mention that a very rare Dusky Thrush has been seen sporadically in Anchorage since early December. This particular Asiatic thrush is most often found with large flocks of American Robins and Bohemian Waxwings. A Dusky Thrush was also found in Anchorage last December - most likely the same individual.

This impressive list of local rarities has brought much sunshine to me and other avid bird watchers this “off” season. So if the cold and gloom of winter get you down, don your binoculars, grab your field guide, and scrutinize the nearest flock of birds to see if you can add to this list of avian gems.


Toby Burke is a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He 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 or