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Christmas bird counters welcome back slaty-backed gull

Posted: Sunday, January 06, 2008

Last year's ivory gull failed to make an appearance at this year's Christmas Bird Count, but Kenai Peninsula birders were still able to find new birds to add to their lists. Birders in the Kenai-Soldotna area counted two rock sandpipers and three northern shrikes this year along with a boreal owl and a trumpeter swan. Volunteers greeted a few returning rarities as well, including a slaty-backed gull.

"It has remained here year in and year out for at least four years now," said Jack Sinclair, area superintendent for Alaska State Parks and data compiler for the Soldotna Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Slaty-backed gulls are common on the western coast of Alaska, but are seldom seen in residential areas, Sinclair said, so to find one mixed in with the local population of glaucous-winged gulls is unusual. "It probably roosts somewhere near the landfill and then goes out to the mouth of the Kenai down by the city dock during the day to feed in the intertidal zone. It seems all gulls do that," he said.

Twenty-two adults and three children branched out into four areas of a 15-mile circle surrounding the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge headquarters counting birds from 10 a.m. to approximately 3 p.m. Dec. 29. The count circle includes the Kenai River from the Soldotna Bridge to the Warren Ames Bridge, the Kenai Spur Highway to the Beaver Loop Flats and up the Sterling Highway to Robinson Loop. Birders counted a total of 2,426 individual birds comprising 37 species.

The boreal owl that found its way on birders' lists is a common, but rarely seen bird in Southcentral Alaska. Sinclair said the trumpeter swan and rock sandpipers winter on the Kenai Peninsula, but this is the first year they turned up in the count area. Trumpeter swans are common on Skilak Lake and there is a flock of approximately 5,000 sandpipers at the mouth of the Kasilof River.

"For two to make their way up here is not totally out of the realm of possibility," Sinclair said.

Only a few unique species showed up at this year's Christmas Bird Count, but birders can note changes in the population of a certain species by examining this year's tally and comparing it with previous years. For example, at last year's Christmas Bird Count, Sinclair said birders came up with a total of 2,253 common redpolls, a small songbird that turns up at many bird feeders. This year birders counted 815. Sinclair said the tally doesn't account for the total redpoll population in the count area, but the reduction is significant.

"That doesn't indicate that they're not here," he said. "(But) it's a huge reduction in numbers."

Ken Tarbox, who scoured the Kenai River area between the Soldotna and Warren Ames bridges with his wife Connie, said redpolls are migratory, they go where the food is. Because the Christmas Bird Count is a nationwide event while redpolls may have been elusive in Soldotna, birders may have come up with record-breaking numbers elsewhere.

"You see those types of fluctuations and watch how these birds are migrating relative to the food," he said. "You can get an approximation of the counts. Different participants helps."

While the redpoll count is lower this year, the number of northwestern crows is steadily rising. A new arrival to the Kenai-Soldotna area, birders first noted the crow in their bird count approximately four years ago. Sinclair said in 2005 birders counted 14 crows, 55 crows made it on the 2006 bird count and this year approximately 71 were counted.

Todd Eskelin, a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and ornithologist, said in the past the northwestern crow was common in the Prince William Sound area before showing up in Homer in the early 1970s. Now Homer hosts a population of 1,000 crows and they've since made their way to Kenai and Soldotna. Eskelin said there seems to be two different flocks of crows in the area, one in Kenai and one in Soldotna, and although they're territorial it's possible that the two flocks overlap.

"(Colleen Handel) in Anchorage is doing a study on deformities and that's showing up in crows as well as chickadees," Eskelin said. "She went and banded crows on Beach Access Road and saw one of the banded crows behind Safeway in Soldotna."

Crows and ravens have territorial roosting areas, but will fly a long way to locate food. Eskelin said a raven found at an Anchorage McDonald's may roost as far away as 20 miles deep in the mountains. Crows and ravens do very well in urban areas, he said the more fast food the easier it is for them.

"If we didn't have Kenai and Soldotna here they wouldn't be making it," he said.

The next birding event that's coming up is the Great Backyard Bird Count between Feb. 15 and 18. Members of the Kenai Birders participate and people who own bird feeders are welcome to get involved.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.



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