Audubon Society holds its 103rd annual Christmas Bird Count

Posted: Monday, December 16, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Mew gulls float in the sky above the Mendenhall Wetlands as a trumpeter swan glides on a waterway behind a frosted field, and a kingfisher watches an otter claim a sculpin. Bob Armstrong, Dave Fremming and Sharon Fremming saw it all, joining in the Audubon Society's 103rd annual Christmas Bird Count.

Bob Armstrong, Dave Fremming and Sharon Fremming saw it all, joining in the Audubon Society's 103rd annual Christmas Bird Count.

About 50,000 people in the United States and Canada participated Saturday in the annual count, which is held one day in late December or early January. The idea is to provide data useful to studying the long-term health of bird populations.

This year's results aren't available yet, but last year 40 Juneau residents saw 9,723 individual birds from 75 species on count day.

Saturday's count came on the last day of waterfowl hunting season and following a warm fall. There may have been more bird decoys than birds out on the flats.

''It looks like we should be counting people today,'' Armstrong said, when he saw the cars lined up along both sides of the access road to the airport dike trail.

Dave Fremming, publisher of Alaskan Southeaster Magazine whose offices are near the airport, said he sees Vancouver Canada geese ''migrate'' to Auke Lake each morning of the hunting season and return at night to the Mendenhall Wetlands to feed on sedge.

''That's sure a pretty sound,'' he said.

Just after setting out on the trail, Armstrong, a retired fisheries biologist and author of a guide to Alaska's birds, spotted mew gulls in a side channel of the Mendenhall River.

''You just sort of go by the black tips on their wings and their size,'' he said.

A bald eagle flew past.

''Here's an interesting bird,'' said Armstrong, looking through his scope. ''It appears to be a trumpeter swan.''

He then watched the gulls picking something off the water, probably small invertebrates called amphipods. The wetlands are rich with them. A graduate student found 20,000 amphipods per square meter in some spots, Armstrong said.

Fremming said he saw them when he took a canoe out at low tide and watched the water brush over the sand.

''What a surprise to find those little guys coming to life from the sand,'' he said.

The birders saw female buffleheads in the floatplane basin, watched over by a solitary kingfisher.

''There are some geese out there,'' Armstrong said, looking now at the wetlands.

''Oh, wait a minute, wait a minute,'' he said, still peering through the scope. ''Never mind. They are geese, but they're immobile'' -- decoys.

The counters exchanged bird stories as they walked down the trail thick with spruce on one side.

Fremming told about a pygmy owl that snatched up a shrew at his feet and carried his prize to a tree. Armstrong said two pairs of bald eagles have nests along the trail and have split up the hunting territory amicably.

The warm fall and late winter have let birds find food in more places that are free of snow or iced-over water, so they weren't concentrated at the wetlands.

Meanwhile, Fremming cocked an ear toward the wetlands. ''There's either one goose out there or one goose call.''

Armstrong spotted 17 scaups, a type of waterfowl, on a pond near the end of the runway. Three dark-eyed juncos, a songbird, flitted in brush nearby. Finally, one of the questionable geese far away in the wetlands stood up, resolving the decoy issue.

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