Counters find big numbers of little birds

Posted: Monday, January 07, 2002

Central Kenai Peninsula bird watchers ended 2001 on an avian high note. Eleven took part Dec. 30 in the 102nd Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society.

"We had a much higher individual count of birds than last year," said organizer Jack Sinclair.

This year the birders saw 1,548 birds of 26 species.

"I do believe it is the highest count ever for the Soldotna bird count," Sinclair said.

That is similar to the previous year, when they reported 1,341 birds of 28 species, but the details showed some real differences. It was a banner year for the area's littlest birds.

"Variety was low but numbers were higher," he said.

The species seen most often this year was the common redpoll, a nomadic seed eater that travels in large flocks and often clusters at bird feeders. The counters tallied 325 of the lively little birds. Last year, the group reported only 61 redpolls. The Anchorage bird count also logged more redpolls this year than last.

"They are usually around," he said. "It is just a matter of timing and finding them in the right place."

The runners up were common ravens (270), bald eagles (229) and black-capped chickadees (217). The chickadees were the most common at feeders, he said.

Biologists have put out an alert for birders to watch for chickadees with abnormal beaks. No deformed ones were seen during the one-day count, although people have spotted them here at other times.

"I've seen some at my feeder on Mackey Lake, and some other people have reported them. We know they are about," Sinclair said.

Other birds seen in great numbers were mallard ducks (95), black-billed magpies (78) and pine siskins (76).

The official 2001 Soldotna results will include any other species seen within a week of the count. Sinclair will submit the numbers to Audubon, which will post them on the Internet. The results become part of the bird count database, which has been growing since 1900.

On the central peninsula, ravens and eagles always are present in high numbers. They tend to congregate at the borough landfill, one of the best but stinkiest places to observe birds.

Another birding hot spot this time was the Kenai River bridge in Soldotna. People have been feeding ducks there, and all the mallards were clustered there, Sinclair said.

One change evident this year was in the number and types of ducks. The 95 mallards were fewer than the 117 reported last year. In 2000, when the mild winter left open water up and down the Kenai River, the birders saw dozens of goldeneyes and mergansers. This year, with ice choking the waterway, they found only four birds of those two species.

Another type of bird that came up short was the gulls. Usually, the counters log hundreds of them at the dump. But this year the count was on Sunday, when no one was moving garbage at the dump. Apparently the gulls like their trash freshly stirred and had gone elsewhere for the day, Sinclair said.

He said he was surprised no sparrows or spruce grouse showed up for the count this year.

"They are around. It is just a matter of timing. We just missed them."

The most unusual sighting was of a golden-crowned kinglet. The diminutive forest bird is a new one for the count. Although kinglets are regular residents of the peninsula, they are rare for the Soldotna area this time of year. Bill Shuster, a ranger from Seward, found it by tracking its call, Sinclair said.

The calm day helped the birders find their targets.

"You could hear where the birds were and go there. I think that really made a difference," he said.

Sinclair attributed the success of the 2001 count to the birders and the weather.

Ten observers cruised the count area, a circle 15 miles in diameter centered at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge headquarters south of Soldotna, and one staked out an active bird feeder.

"They were all very good birders who were familiar with areas to look for and did an effective job," Sinclair said.

"And the weather was certainly nice. ... It was a nice day to just be walking around looking at things."

The temperatures hovered in the mid-30s throughout the day, a major contrast to the frigid conditions that prevailed only a few weeks ago when Sinclair was planning the event.

"We were just enjoying ourselves. It got a little breezy by the end of the day, but that was all," he said with obvious relief.

"I wasn't looking forward to 20-below birding."

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