Shorebirds may be late, but festival right on time

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

HOMER -- The annual push of shorebirds through the Gulf of Alaska coastal region is one of the world's amazing migratory spectacles. At their peak, the birds will return to Kachemak Bay by the tens of thousands.

Homer greets their arrival this weekend with the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, a 10-year-old show of avian affection that will bring more than 2,000 binocular-toting birders to Homer's bays and beaches over the course of the weekend.

Taken off by itself and given a casual glance, the average sandpiper is a modest looking bird dressed in speckled earth tones. But its movements through the air and along the shoreline are nothing short of stunning. Built with nimble legs, agile wings and a bill perfectly suited to the shellfish and insects it takes from the tidal mud, this creature is a marvel.

Now multiply this lone bird by 1,000 and turn this flock into a multitude of variously shaped and sized shorebirds of different species, coming from as far away as Tierra Del Fuego, Hawaii and Asia.

This is the spectacle that will descend on Kachemak Bay in the next few days.

It has already begun, and Kachemak Bay Research Reserve biologist and education specialist Carmen Field has started preparing for the festival by diligently scoping birds at Mud Bay, Beluga Lake and along the Homer Spit. She reports her findings on the "peep hotline" at 235-7337.

There have been sightings of greater and lesser yellowlegs, marbled godwits, whimbrels and black-bellied plovers, though most of these are only here in small numbers so far. The waterfowl and seabirds are showing up in greater numbers, with white-fronted geese, red-necked grebes, common loons and Steller's and king eiders making appearances.

Southcentral Alaska's unusually slow-turning spring doubtlessly has some birders and local business owners worried, Field said.

"It may peak on Friday or it may peak this weekend. It may even peak on Monday," she said of the migration. "But the birds will definitely show up."

While the festival organizers can't pinpoint the time when the migration will reach its height, they do have a pretty good idea.

The chamber, which cosponsors the festival with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, relies on the extensive shorebird research of University of Alaska ornithology professor George West. West's data indicate that the shorebird migration typically peaks in Kachemak Bay on May 9.

West lived in Homer and was a driving force behind the founding of the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, which festival coordinator Dorle Scholz said has become Alaska's largest wildlife celebration.

Chamber records show that nearly half of the birders attending the event come from beyond the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, with a large share coming down from Anchorage and others coming from the Lower 48 and abroad.

Early registration is up from years past, Scholz said, and many of the more popular, space-limited events have filled up.

Most of the presentations, which take place at a variety of venues around town, are free, as are the majority of the field events. There are also a number of boat and kayak excursions that charge a fee to take birders out to various parts of the bay.

Biologist Frank Todd will present the festival's keynote address. Todd is an expert on waterfowl and penguins.

In addition to the many presentations, viewing stations and field events happening during the festival, the weekend also offers a host of other community events.

Out on the Spit, the Kachemak Bay Wooden Boat Festival features an exhibit of wooden boats both days on the lot adjacent to the General Store. Children's toy boat building is Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Rowboat races start at noon Sunday below the festival site.

The Migration Run, a 5-kilometer fun run on the Spit, takes place Sunday at 10 a.m., starting at Fishing Hole.

Sepp Jannotta is a reporter for the Homer News.

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