For the birds: High school contest hatches new viewing platform

Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2009

Location, location, location: If ever there was an ideal spot for a bird viewing platform, the new facility near the Kenai city dock has got it.

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Photos By M. Scott Moon
Photos By M. Scott Moon
Members of the Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce check out a new bird viewing platform near the Kenai city dock Wednesday afternoon during a special luncheon at the site.

"It's the perfect viewing spot," said Ken Tarbox, a retired biologist who served as an adviser to a team of high school students that envisioned the project six years ago. "Behind you, you've got freshwater ponds, then there's the river habitat, and across that, the gull colony, and you can see the river bank. It's a good spot to see a diversity of habitat and the birds associated with that."

Mammals, too, can be spotted from the platform, Tarbox said. Indeed, harbor seals and the occasional beluga whale can be seen in the river, caribou regularly visit the flats, and numerous canine footprints around the base of the platform allude to the coyotes that frequent the area.

The viewing platform, accessed via Boat Launch Road off Bridge Access Road in Kenai, on Wednesday was unveiled to a joint meeting of the Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce. The Kenai Watershed Forum facilitated the project, though Executive Director Robert Ruffner thanked several collaborators, including the city of Kenai for use of the land on which the platform sits, ConocoPhillips for financial support for projects at several locations around the peninsula, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for helping with grant funding, and the Keen Eye Birding Club, which supported the project. A final touch came from the Kenai Lions Club, which provided a bench for the platform.

Tarbox said the idea for a bird viewing platform came out of a project for the 2003 Alaska National Ocean Sciences Bowl, a national competition sponsored in Alaska by the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. The team of Rachel Beatty, Stevie-Kaye Pyfer, Matt Smith, Alison Simpson and Jaime Miller envisioned not just the viewing platform, but also photography blinds, a wildlife viewing trail, and even turning an old cannery into a visitors center.

"They discovered watchable wildlife is a big economic engine," Tarbox said, noting that between 100,000 and 150,000 Alaskans regularly drive a significant distance to view wildlife.

The team earned second place for its effort, which included a great deal of research as well as presentations to city councils and other groups.

The new platform can be of benefit to Kenai businesses, attracting visitors during the shoulder season when migratory birds are visiting the Kenai River flats. The platform also was designed with school groups in mind -- it's big enough to accomodate a whole class, and with a gently sloping ramp, is handicapped-accessible.

Tarbox also noted the platform is built on a previously disturbed patch of ground where an old dock used to be, so no habitat was lost to the project. In fact, some of the marshland has been reclaimed.

"This is something the community can take advantage of," Ruffner said.

The viewing platform is sure to get some use this weekend as a field station for the Kenai Birding Festival. For more information, visit the Kenai Watershed Forum Web site at www.kenaiwatershed.org.

Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.



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