People travel for many reasons. Some travel for business. Others, to catch the biggest fish. But if you tell a handful of birders that a purple finch or McKay's bunting showed up on the Kenai Peninsula, chances are they'll grab their field glasses and flock down here faster than the fastest fisherman can bait his hook.
A female Steller's eider is drawing birders from Anchorage to Seward since Sadie Ulman, an AmeriCorp volunteer with the Alaska SeaLife Center, spotted it amongst a flock of harlequin ducks at the end of Nash Road in Seward on Nov. 28.
"I had my spotting scope out just scoping around and she was just hanging out with them," Ulman said. "It was like, 'Whoa! She doesn't belong, cool!'"
When Ulman informed her supervisors at the SeaLife Center she was met with suspicion. But after a summer of volunteering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service observing nesting eiders in Barrow and a lifetime of birding, Ulman was confident the eider was the real deal.
"Steller hens have more of a square-topped head and they have a speculum (an iridescent patch similar a mallard's), which they're only one of two diving ducks that have them," she said. "It was her head that first caught my eye."
While explanations vary as to why a bird may wind up outside its home range, Heidi Cline, avian curator for the SeaLife center, said stormy weather might explain the eider's presence. These eiders can typically be found near Homer and it's possible the female was blown around the tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
"I don't believe they have ever been seen in Resurrection Bay," Cline said. "There are no known records of them being seen here before."
The Steller's eider is the smallest species of sea ducks known as eiders that breed on the North Slope of Alaska, particularly in Barrow, and winter on the Aleutian chain, as well as in Kamishak and Kachemak bays. Cline said the Steller's eider is an extremely endangered bird with only 200 known breeding individuals left in Alaska.
Even though this is the first wild Steller's eider found in Resurrection Bay, Cline and her colleague, senior aviculturist Tasha DiMarzio, said Seward is often a destination spot for wayward birds, playing host to king eiders, ceder waxwings and yellow-billed loons. Some birds, like the loons, can be found in solitary pairs, but the waxwings and eiders can often be found with similar species. For example, birders came across the ceder waxwings, a type of song bird, while watching a flock of related birds known as bohemian waxwings.
"It usually takes two people to get a good identification on it, or a photo if you're out birding by yourself," DiMarzio said, adding that when she or Cline identify a rare bird, they put alerts out on various birding Web sites. "(I've received) quite a few e-mails from people in Anchorage and people coming up, asking if the bird is still there."
Pat Pourchot, a senior policy representative with the Audubon Society in Anchorage, acknowledged the fact that a Steller's eider in Resurrection Bay is rare, but said that it's not what he would call a mega rarity. An avid birder since 1975, Pourchot will brave icy roads on the off chance that an ivory gull will still be at the mouth of the Kenai River once he gets down there. Last summer, he said, he drove a 1,000-mile round trip into the Alaska Interior to see a six-inch tall songbird known as a yellow-bellied flycatcher.
"You see different parts of the country and different parts of Alaska," he said. Pourchot added that birding provides him the added bonus of being able to get outside and hike, visiting some of the protected areas that house the birds. But, he said, it's not uncommon to find a rare bird in a less than unsavory environment. "There's a not so closely held secret, sometimes people do a lot of birding at dumps. Until they started being more restrictive on access, one of the great winter birding places is the Soldotna landfill."
Todd Eskelin, a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said part of the mystique rare birds hold for birders is that you don't know where they could show up. But other than an American coot and a Townsend solitaire showing up in Homer, things have been quiet on the rare bird front, he said.
While bad weather may be the reason an eider will wind up off course, evolution may explain why some songbirds are found outside their home range. Eskelin said with the exception of crows and jays, songbirds will mass produce to make up for a high turnover rate as a way to expand the species. Sometimes these birds will get to a new location and die if the conditions aren't hospitable for them, but if they find an environment that they can breed in, they'll flourish.
"It's a thing that's hard-wired for them so their species can adapt," Eskelin said. "Your more threatened species often don't have that ability or a lot of times, like the spectacled eider, winter in the same spot. That alone puts them at risk."
Ulman, who has been birding for as long as she can remember, said she wants to get into the Alaska 200-birds club and has already seen 102 birds since she moved here in May. Like many birders, she's come up with a life list, that is a list of birds she wants to see in her lifetime, and said she'd be willing to travel as far away as Fairbanks if it meant seeing a rare bird.
"I guess I've been an outdoor birding person all my life," she said. "If there was a bird I had never seen in Alaska that is a rare bird I would go to Fairbanks to see it."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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