Checklist of Alaska bird species: Growing by leaps and bounds

Refuge Notebook

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2007

In 1959, Ira Gabrielson and Frederick Lincoln published the monumental ornithological book "Birds of Alaska." This comprehensive work includes an annotated list of 311 naturally occurring bird species that had been observed in Alaska through June 1958. In 1978, Brina Kessel and Daniel Gibson updated the list through November 1977 totaling 381 bird species.

In 1991, Gibson and Kessel again updated the list, documenting 436 species. Gibson, Heinl, and Tobish compiled 468 species through 2002. And as of Jan. 1 of this year, the "Checklist of Alaska Birds" stood at a remarkable 478 species.

If that isn't impressive enough, when the checklist is updated as of Jan. 1, 2008, it will increase by at least seven to 485 species, not to mention 25 additional unsubstantiated species. Unsubstantiated species are those founded on compelling written details by at least one experienced observer, yet lacking the strict documentation standard described below. Thus, through 2007, at least 510 naturally occurring bird species have been reliably reported in Alaska.

This year was an incredible year for documenting new bird species in Alaska. Strays from Eurasia included gray heron and brown hawk-owl observed on St. Paul Island, and sedge warbler and yellow-browed bunting observed on St. Lawrence Island. Eurasian-collared dove, Bullock's oriole, and vesper sparrow are North American breeders also newly documented in Alaska.

Bullock's oriole, a western North American breeder, wandered north and was also remarkably documented on St. Lawrence Island. Eurasian-collared dove and vesper sparrow were both recorded in southeast Alaska with wanderers coming from more southerly North American breeding areas. The Eurasian-collared dove is an Old World species that escaped from captivity in the Bahamas in the 1970s, has become firmly established in the southeastern United States, and through natural dispersal as well as deliberate releases has rapidly colonized North America. There is a good chance that we on the Kenai may see this vanguard of the new invasion within the next few years.

The "Checklist of Alaska Birds" is primarily founded on the collection of voucher specimens, but in the absence of a physical specimen, it is possible to use audio, photographic, and video recordings to substantiate the state's naturally occurring species.

The checklist does not include species whose occurrence in Alaska is considered unnatural, such as the result of human assistance, known or presumed. This includes captive birds, escaped or deliberately released, as well as ship-assisted arrivals. Accordingly, you will not see Humboldt penguin on the checklist, even though a Humboldt penguin was captured alive in a southeast Alaska fisherman's net in 2002. It is strongly suspected that this penguin was transported to Alaska waters aboard a South American ship. Chilean and Peruvian fisherman commonly keep these docile penguins as shipboard pets.

Nor will you see a brown booby on the checklist, even though one accompanied a yacht sailing 2,200 miles from Hawaii to the port of Kodiak in August 1999.

Other notable birds you will not see on the checklists are ones that are becoming increasingly common on the human landscape such as rock pigeon (domestic pigeon), wild turkey, northern bobwhite, and ring-necked pheasant.

Considered to be commensals, these species are not known to persist independent of humans and their altered environments. But it should be noted that we likely will see ring-necked pheasants included on some future "Checklist of Alaska Birds." After numerous introductions it appears that they are breeding and expanding in the greater Homer area to the point that they may some day persist independent of humans.

Though also not native to Alaska, European starling is already on the state checklist, not merely because it is believed to have made it to Alaska on its own, where it typically lives in urban and agricultural environments, but because it also persists, though not commonly, in the larger wilder landscape. European starling, along with the newly arrived Eurasian-collared dove and the rarely encountered house sparrow and house finch have the common and dubious distinction of being our only invasive bird species yet encountered in Alaska.

It must be noted that like most comprehensive bird checklists, the "Checklist of Alaska Birds" reflects not only the contributions of many highly skilled and passionate professional ornithologists and wildlife managers, but also the contributions of many highly skilled and passionate citizen scientists whose eyes, ears, and minds are open to the diversity of our Alaska avifauna.

Toby Burke is a refuge biological technician who is intrigued by the status and distribution of Alaska and Kenai Peninsula birds and enjoys birding with his wife and family.

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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on our website You can report historic or current marten sign observations (907) 260-2827 and check on new bird arrivals or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline (907) 262-2300.

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