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Refuge Notebok: When encountering a 'mystery' bird, utilize local expertise

Posted: November 14, 2013 - 4:27pm
Photo by Lee Post  An Eastern Kingbird eats Elderberries during a visit to Anchor Point in August.
Photo by Lee Post An Eastern Kingbird eats Elderberries during a visit to Anchor Point in August.

As an ornithologist and bird watcher, I am not only intrigued by the occurrence of rare birds on the Kenai Peninsula, but also their patterns of occurrence. When examining where new bird species were documented on the Peninsula it became clear that a disproportionately large number are discovered in the greater Seward and Homer-Anchor Point areas. Coincidental?  Not at all.

These two areas have mild maritime climates, possess high quality, diverse terrestrial and marine habitats, and are topographic and geographic funnels for migrating birds. They also have high densities of fruit-bearing ornamental plantings and residents who provide well-stocked bird feeders that attract hungry migrating and wintering birds.  These physical assets contribute to exceptional bird productivity, abundance, and diversity year-round. They are also relatively limited in area as these “islands” are surrounded by far larger areas of lesser productivity.

Certainly not all, but a preponderance of rare birds are discovered in spring and fall. During these “prime times”, these unique “islands” are where rare birds are most frequently encountered.  In ornithological parlance we commonly refer to them as migrant traps.

The greater Kasilof-Soldotna-Sterling-Kenai-Nikiski area does have some of the same physical assets for birds but less so. Available bird habitats here are comparatively vast and fairly homogeneous. While there are noteworthy bird-rich locales such as the Kenai and Kasilof River estuaries, the central Kenai Peninsula is generally not considered a migrant trap.

Notably, Seward and Homer-Anchor Point also have residents who are aware of, and take advantage of, their local bird watchers and ornithologists who readily assist them in putting a name to the “mystery” birds frequenting their yards, avenues, forests, and beaches. Each year novice bird watchers in these two areas make significant ornithological discoveries as a few of their reported mystery birds end up being identified as bona fide rarities or even first records for the Kenai Peninsula or Alaska.

For example, Sandy Lettis of Anchor Point noticed an unfamiliar bird eating elderberries and catching yellow jackets in her yard on August 26, 2013. She contacted a local bird watching friend who visited her property, photographed the bird, and identified it as an Eastern Kingbird. Though he knew it was a rare bird, he did not realize just how rare it was until he reported it to area experts who informed him it was a first record for the Peninsula.

On November 15, 2011 Seward resident Jim Herbert was walking the beach on the south side of Lowell Point in blustery weather when he observed a thrush foraging along the water’s edge. He thought it odd that a thrush was on the beach, outside its preferred wooded habitat, especially in such harsh conditions.  Jim attempted to identify the bird but he was unable to acquire a completely satisfying view. He reasoned that it probably was 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 refound and photographed the bird the next day. The identity of the bird was still in question until photographs of the bird were sent to state experts who identified it as a Redwing - a common and widespread thrush of Europe and Asia, closely related to our native American Robin. Not only was it a first record for Seward and the Kenai Peninsula but remarkably it was also the first Alaska record and only the second record for western North America!

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m encouraging central Kenai Peninsula residents to be vigilant and report those mystery birds. If you get a chance, grab your digital camera and photograph the bird. If a camera isn’t available, take a few notes and describe the bird as best you can. Then contact the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at 262-7021. Ask to speak with or leave a message with a Refuge biologist. You may be asked to email the photo or describe it in detail. The biologist may even want to see the bird if your mystery bird is suspected of being a rarity in need of further confirmation or documentation.

You can also report your mystery birds to the Keen Eye Birders at 262-7767 and 335-1558. They also host an online bird forum known as KPBirding (groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/kpbirding/info) that targets birds of the Kenai Peninsula and especially the central Peninsula. The online forum AKBirding (groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/akbirding/info) has a statewide focus.

So there are many ways to report your mystery birds but don’t delay. While a few rare birds stay in the area for weeks or even months, most persist for only minutes, hours, or perhaps a few days. Act sooner than later.

Of course many reported birds are ultimately identified as common residents and migrants, but local rarities are reported and identified annually. The central Peninsula likely harbors far more rare birds than what is reported. Help us while having fun by participating in the 114th Audubon Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 14 (contact Jack Sinclair, 262-7817, for more information). Hopefully, with increased awareness and willingness to utilize local bird expertise, we will see increased documentation and understanding of avian diversity on the Kenai Peninsula.

 

Toby Burke is a Biological Technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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