You have to love this time in Alaska. We are settling into a cold, snowy world for the next few months. Yet we have already turned a corner and the lengthening daylight gives us a subtle reminder that spring is about to spring. I find this to be a unique time of year because it's when I have a moment to get caught up on all of the fabulous bird sightings that people reported during the previous year. I finally get to enter the information into the database about the first record ever of a Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus) on the Kenai Peninsula. With that record, you can't joke with your friends about snipe hunting. You now must ask them if they want to go hunting for Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata) or Jack Snipe!
Aaron Lang found the Jack Snipe on Nov. 16 at Beluga Slough in Homer. It was actually one of three new bird species seen on the Kenai Peninsula in 2010. The Jack Snipe was photographed a couple of times on the 16th and then all further attempts to relocate it failed. This was a very unique sighting and birders drove through the night from Fairbanks just to search for it the following morning. Not only was it a first Kenai Peninsula record, but it was the first mainland Alaska record and probably only the fourth or fifth record ever in Alaska, with all others coming from Gambell and St. Paul Island. The Jack Snipe was actually the second new addition to the Kenai Peninsula list in 2010.
On July 7 I was presented a picture of a Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) taken by Truls Andersen at the Anchor River. Truls was a visiting Norwegian on his second trip to Alaska. He popped into Anchor Point and on the beach in front of him was a gull much more familiar to him in his homeland. Birders from Homer to Anchorage descended on the area in the days to follow and sifted through the myriad of gulls, but no luck. The bird had vanished.
The third new species added to the Kenai Peninsula list was a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). This bird also appeared in the Anchor Point area where Lauren Trimble photographed it perched in her yard. A few weeks after her wonderful pictures were circulated, it was confirmed as the Kenai Peninsula's first record.
I found this last report to be most interesting because I was actually in Tampa, Florida, watching Turkey Vultures out my frosted hotel window when I read the e-mail alert about the bird in Anchor Point. Picture this. It is 29 degrees in Tampa! The citrus trees and strawberry fields look like something from Disney's Magic Kingdom. They are encased in ice from the heavy overnight irrigation in an attempt to save the entire industry. I am looking over the outdoor pool, laden with a heavy fog layer induced by the adjacent hot tub. It looks strikingly similar to a frosty September morning on the upper Kenai River, and there are six vultures lofting in the wind in search of something dead. I am thinking to myself, "It's 29 degrees in Tampa and the vultures are doing fine." It's just a matter of time before they figure out that Alaska is the place to be for road kill.
Addition of this third species in 2010 brings the total Kenai Peninsula bird list to 284. 2010 was also a record-breaking year for Kenai birders who used eBird. The top birder to enter sightings in eBird documented a record-breaking 155 species in 2010. There were 198 different species seen on the Kenai this past year so there is a lot of room for someone to break this record in 2011. This record has fallen almost every year for the past five years and will undoubtedly be challenged in 2011. In 2006, the top person was in the 80's and the total species reported for the Kenai was 182. In 2007 and 2008, we were in the 100-110 range with a total species tally still in the 180's. Then, in 2009, a local birder set the bar at 141 with a total species tally of 198. So in 2011, I expect someone to go over 160 and, for the first time ever, I think we will have over 200 species spotted on the Kenai Peninsula in one year.
There are several good reasons why we are seeing these records fall. Climate change has definitely added to our species total. The climate has not changed so significantly that we are have lost any resident species, but the subtle changes have allowed a few more species to join the party. The various social media outlets have also allowed the word get out that the Kenai Peninsula is a fabulous place to bird, so the sheer numbers of birders have developed a more complete species list than we had before. Lastly, the advent of eBird and its ease of use have made it much easier to find out which birds are being seen and to document these records permanently. It encourages people to get outside and go birding. Let's face it, I am not likely to add too many species to my list from behind the computer.
So, for your New Year's resolution, go outside and do a little birding! Go to www.ebird.org
Todd Eskelin is a Biological Technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He specializes in birds and has conducted research on songbirds in many areas of the state. He may be reached at 907-262-7021.
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Previous Refuge Notebook columns can be viewed on the web at http://kenai.fws.gov.
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