The bird's the thing: Local, visiting birders share their stories, strategies at inaugural winter festival

Posted: Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Most people wouldn't spend $3,600 to briefly visit with a friend or family member, and a hardcore birder probably wouldn't either. What they would do is plunk down that cash to see a single bird -- to check a certain avian critter off of their "life list," a compilation of species they have personally sighted during their lifetime.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Aurora Funk works on a birdhouse with her mother, Shelley Barker, as instructor Ken Tarbox helps another participant during last weekend's bird festival at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.

Ken Marlow has been birding since he was a small boy living in Deer River, Minn., and as a professional birding guide has encountered his fair share of die-hard fanatics. At first fascinated by their brilliant colors, Marlow has come to appreciate the intelligence and playfulness of birds -- especially the raven -- and has been guiding since he retired from teaching in 1994.

"For some it's a game of 'how many can I get,'" Marlow said of his clients. "Some of them actually figure out their cost per bird on each trip. Some are listers; their list is very important to them."

If an experienced birder makes their first trip to the Kenai Peninsula, he said, there might be 15 birds that they have never seen and want to add to their life list.

"And let's say they get 10 of those 15," he hypothesized. "If they come back a second time, all of a sudden the expense of that trip and cost per bird has jumped considerably. And some do come back, and of the five they still haven't gotten, they might get three of those. And some will come back a third time looking for those last two birds."

Marlow is the founder and past president of the Keen Eye Bird Club and uses his extensive knowledge of these feathered creatures to help beginner and expert birders alike. He spoke at the first Kenai Birding Festival Winter Workshop on Saturday, where he shared tips geared toward novices who bird leisurely.

"The vast majority of birders coming up here are here just to see the whole area and to take in some of the birds," said Marlow.

The festival, which ran from Friday to Saturday, catered more to these amateur birders, featuring events such as house and feeder building, a film screening, and a field expedition to the mouth of the Kasilof River for some hands-on viewing.

"We were talking about fish, we were talking about geology, birds, natural history," said Ken Tarbox, the vice president of the Keen Eye Bird Club who headed the field trip. "So it's not just about birding. A lot of people were out just for that. Just for the outdoor adventure and to learn about their environment."

Artists, photographers, outdoorsmen, and birders of all levels flock to the Kenai Birding Festival every spring to partake in the activities, and now the winter installment hopes to drawn a similar crowd.

"I've enjoyed birds all my life," said Maryann Dyke, who attended Marlow's presentation on Saturday and considers herself an amateur. "I try to learn more and more. I'm not terribly knowledgeable by any means."

While Marlow says beginners like Dyke constitute the majority of his clients, he has plenty of stories to share about the birders on the other side of the spectrum. With every hobby of course come the die-hards, the ones who will unflinchingly compromise their finances, time, and plans to pursue that goal that seems so tiny and insignificant to outsiders.

A few years back, 16 British birders came to the peninsula for 12 days of guided birding with Marlow. He took them on different adventures each day, and one of those days they ran into another group of birders on an Alaska tour with the international company WINGS, which operates all over the world.

Four of the WINGS birding enthusiasts had wandered down to the peninsula since they had a couple of days off in Anchorage, and while convening with Marlow's group, one of them received a cell phone call from a friend who also happened to be birding in Alaska.

"He got really excited on the phone: 'Ah! All right! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!'" Marlow said.

It turned out the friend had sighted a Stellar's sea eagle off the coast between Cordova and Yakutat. Marlow knew that the bird was exceedingly rare for Alaska, one that most birders can't manage to get on their list, yet here they were in Kenai with no means of reasonably (the operative word here) getting to the eagle.

But these four friends weren't going to let the opportunity slip through their fingers.

"These guys took off for Anchorage -- they flew up to Anchorage -- chartered a jet, flew out to Cordova, then they rented a helicopter and they flew the coastline until they saw the eagle," Marlow said. "They hovered off to the side, took pictures of it, and then came back down to Kenai to pick up their car again.

"Each one of those four birders spent over $3,600 to check one bird from their list."

And, as Marlow understands all too well, each one of them knew it was totally worth it.

Karen Garcia can be reached at

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