New festival takes wing; bird watchers offered venue

Posted: Friday, May 12, 2006


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  Participants in the second annual Kenai Shorebird Celebration aim scopes and binoculars at birds in the wetlands near Kasilof beach Wednesday. Photo by John Hult

Participants in the second annual Kenai Shorebird Celebration aim scopes and binoculars at birds in the wetlands near Kasilof beach Wednesday.

Photo by John Hult

“This spotting on the flank is pretty definitive of this bird,” Todd Eskelin said, aiming his laser pointer at the belly of a bird displayed digitally on a screen at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Building on Wednesday morning.

“From that, you can see this is a western sandpiper, not a semipalmated (sandpiper).”

Eskelin starts to finger the mouse pad on his laptop computer, then clicks into the next slide in this introductory bird identification workshop. A voice chimes in before the screen switches, asking,

“What is ‘semipalmated?’”

“Semiwebbed feet,” Eskelin promptly responds, drawing ‘oh, yeah’ mumbles and head nods from other experienced birders in the room. He switches back to the previous slide to illustrate a point: “You can see though, that’s something that, unless you’ve handled them, you won’t know.”

Eskelin was the first teacher for the nearly two dozen attendees of the second annual Kenai Shorebird Celebration’s opening workshop. The meeting, like his teaching style and the Celebration itself, was purposefully informal.

Last weekend’s Kachemak Shorebird Festival in Homer drew thousands of eyes to thousands of birds in what has become a premiere event for birders state- and nationwide.

That sort of event can be intimidating to beginners, thought organizers of the Kenai’s Celebration. Those organizers, represented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where Eskelin works, the Kenai Watershed Forum and the Soldotna Bird Club, decided the wide variety of shorebirds viewable in the area could get the gears moving for future birders and give central peninsula birders a chance to play close to home.

“It’s good to be here birding in my own backyard,” said Eskelin, who was born and raised in Kenai.

At the start of the workshop, Eskelin urged attendees to share as many identification tips as possible, noting that an informal exchange of ideas is the best way to hone skills.

“I really would like to generate more of a discussion as a group, because that’s how you learn birding,” Eskelin said. “Every person in this room has the ability to see the little differences.”


Birders will be watching for migrating waterfowl including geese, swans and cranes.

Clarion file photo

Eskelin used a series of digital photographs taken over the past few weeks on the Kenai flats on near Kasilof Beach, as well as slides from birding handbooks, to run through some basic techniques.

After a break, attendees learned about one way to take photos of the faraway shorebirds for future identification called digiscoping. The technique involves holding a digital camera up to the eyepiece of a viewing scope, essentially turning the scope into a zoom lens and allowing for close, if not always entirely in-focus, pictures.

Bird identification knowledge learned and digiscoping techniques grasped, the birders then headed out to Kasilof Beach for lunch and the first of two birding expeditions. The second would take them to the Kenai flats.

Allan Rudisill, an air traffic controller at Kenai Municipal Airport who lives in Kasilof, is already a bird watcher and photographer. He also has a degree in wildlife management, but he decided to take up the program’s offer of shorebird knowledge after seeing an article on the event last week.

“I look at eagles and take pictures, but identifying all those different little shorebirds, I’ve never tried that,” Rudisill said between bites of a submarine sandwich provided by organizers.

Rudisill said the techniques taught in the workshop were useful, but added, “I’ve got a little experience in identifying things with a wildlife degree, I’m not completely foreign to it.”

Janine Ray, a home-schooled ninth-grader from Kenai, was eager to get some experience. The biology student seemed to have a knack. At the workshop, Janine was the first to identify a mystery bird Eskelin flashed on screen as an informal quiz (a Baird’s sandpiper), netting herself a Kenai River poster.

“I’m always interested in learning about identifying birds, and this seemed like a good opportunity to become more familiar with it.”

She and her mother, Norma Ray, took turns looking through one of several spotting scopes aimed at the wetlands across the road from Kasilof Beach, and each was able to catch the most noteworthy bird fluttering around in the wet grass, a Hudsonian Godwit. Janine hoped to see another bird, too.

“It would be really cool to see a plover,” she said, speaking of the rotund black and white birds represented by three species on Kasilof Beach and Kenai flats.


Birders look for a Hudsonian Godwit in the wetlands across from the Kasilof beach Wednesday. Pictured are Kathy Zerbe, left, Garey Zerbe, center, and Ken Tarbox.

Photo by John Hult

According to Ken Tarbox, a 20-year birder and retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game employee who assisted organizers with the Celebration, the types of birders and the goals they have aren’t as varying as the bird characteristics they argue about, but they do vary greatly.

“Some people like to make life lists and they’ll come to a site like this and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a Hudsonian Godwit, I’m on to the next bird,’” Tarbox said. “Then there’s a group that will say, ‘That’s a Hudsonian Godwit, I’m gonna sit and watch it and how it interacts with its environment,’ and then you have the range in between.”

Tarbox said some birders focus on bird calls, others on rare birds. Some, like him, will get calls from fellow birders about a particular species roosting on the flats and make every effort to scurry off and see it. Others may only show up for Wednesday’s birding.

“In a group like this, everybody will be represented,” he said. “You just get to interact at whatever level you want to interact.”

Peninsula residents can look forward to seeing a map of 64 birding and wildlife viewing sites and a book detailing wildlife to be seen at each next spring, Tarbox said. The book is a joint project of the Watershed Forum and Fish and Game.

Residents who wish to try out birding will get the chance much earlier. Anyone interested can do the same workshop the Wednesday birders did starting at 1:15 p.m. Saturday at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call Josselyn at 260-5449.

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