Migration offers ample viewing opportunities

Posted: Friday, May 05, 2006


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  A bachelor group of harlequin ducks takes flight from their rock refuge in some fast flowing water. Clarion file photo by Joseph Rob

A mallard duck flies with her mate in Soldotna last weekend. Migratory birds are arriving as the summer approaches.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Waterfowl watchers may want flock to see the thousands of ducks and geese that are stopping in briefly, or returning for the summer, to the Kenai Peninsula.

“Now is a good time for waterfowl spotting,” said Todd Eskelin, a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

While there are numerous areas to search for ducks and geese, Eskelin said one of the best places to see a diversity of species, some of which come in large numbers, is the Kenai Flats area.

Birds can be seen off of Cannery Road, the Port of Kenai Road, or from the viewing platforms on pulloffs along Bridge Access Road. It doesn’t take high-powered equipment to get a good peek at the birds, either.

“Typically, you don’t need a big spotting scope to see them from there,” Eskelin said. Binoculars or the naked eyes work just find in most cases.

“This area supports some nice wetlands,” he said, which is what draws birds to the area.

“I saw good numbers of snow geese this year. I got a peak count of roughly 1,200 one morning, which is higher than the last couple of years,” Eskelin said.

Being almost entirely white, these snow geese stick out against the grass of the flats, which is still dry and brown from winter.

“We also saw tons of Canada geese. Roughly 5,500 or so at least one morning,” he said.

While this species may seem common, Eskelin said they are still worth noting because of the numerous subspecies which, although rare, can occur.

“This year we saw three different subspecies of Canada geese,” he said. These included Taverner’s (Alaska) Canada goose, Lesser Canada goose, and cackling goose.

Eskelin said he observed the cackling goose at the marshy area at the mouth of Kasilof River — another prolific area for spring waterfowl viewing.

“(Cackling goose) is a new one for me. I only saw four or five, but they were distinctly different. They were noticeably smaller, had a really short bill and a blueish-gray sheen as opposed to the usual chocolate-gray color,” he said.

Eskelin said he also saw large numbers of white-fronted geese at the flats and in Kasilof. This is a medium to large species that is grayish-brown in color, but distinguishable from other geese by its pink beak and orange legs.

Another rare species Eskelin has observed this year is a compact cousin to Canada geese — a nearly all-black species with a white collar commonly called a Brant (or Brent) goose.

“These are a longer-distance migrant headed toward Western Alaska and the Yukon Delta, but we saw two on the Kenai and a high of five on the Kasilof,” Eskelin said.

In addition to geese, Eskelin said there are numerous species of ducks to be seen in Kenai and Kasilof, including mallards, northern pintails, gadwalls, American wigeons and Eurasian wigeons.

This latter species can be distinguished by the rich chestnut-red head color of drakes, as opposed to the drakes of its American counterpart which have a bright, creamy-white strip on the forehead and a broad, iridescent green band extending from eye to behind the neck.


A bachelor group of harlequin ducks takes flight from their rock refuge in some fast flowing water.

Clarion file photo by Joseph Rob

“I’ve also been seeing green-wing teals and Eurasian teals,” Eskelin said.

These two can be distinguished from each other in that green-wing teal drakes have a vertical white band on the side of their breast that is absent. Eurasian drakes also have a more defined white border to their green eye patch.

“Although not so common, one or two redheads and canvasbacks can also be seen at the flats, as well as Northern shoveler, but never in high densities, just 10 to 20 typically,” Eskelin said.

The latter species is easily identifiable by its strikingly spatula-like bill that is uses to skim the water in search of food.

“It’s a real showy bird,” Eskelin said.

For those who enjoy hiking there are numerous species of ducks that can be seen away from Kenai and Kasilof.

Anyone making their way near turbulent water should look for the small, but richly colored harlequin duck.

“They’re pretty sharp,” Eskelin said of this sea duck that is primarily blueish-gray with patches of rose-coloring on their flanks and bold white markings with black borders over the ear, around and on the sides of the neck, and from the shoulder to the breast.

“Harlequins prefer clean, fast-flowing waters, so the upper Kenai is probably the best spot to see them, but there are also five or six pairs on the Russian River.

“Now’s a good time to see them before people start fishing or before they start making their way back to sea,” Eskelin said. They usually head back to salt water in early June after breeding is complete.

“Engineer Lake is another great place for waterfowl, maybe one of the best lakes I’ve seen,” Eskelin said.

This is a good place to see other sea ducks, such as surf scoters and black scoters, according to Eskelin. Common and red-breasted mergansers are also not uncommon, and the same is true for loons and grebes.

Several other lakes in the Skilak Loop Wildlife Management area are good for waterfowl watching. The deep water of Hidden Lake draws in scaups while the tiny Rock Lake along Skilak Loop Road occasionally draws ringneck ducks, according to Eskelin.

“They’re not there every year, but that’s a good place to look for them,” he said.

Another lake outside this area that annually draws ducks is Lower Fuller Lake. This area, with its numerous cottonwoods and other trees, draws in cavity-nesting sucks like goldeneyes.

“That’s a nice area for them,” Eskelin said.

There are two species of goldeneyes that make the peninsula their home — the common and Barrow’s goldeneye.

These two are identifiable from each other by the larger size, shorter bill, steeper forehead, longer mane and crescent-shaped (rather than round) white cheek-patch of the Barrow’s goldeneye.

For anyone interested in learning more about waterfowl and bird watching, Eskelin suggested calling the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s birding hotline at 907-262-2300.

Message are posted regularly on the hotline notifying callers of any recent rare or unusual bird sightings, with directions to the last known location these birds were spotted at.

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