Neither snow nor sleet keeps bird lovers inside Christmas count goes on despite wintry weather

Posted: Tuesday, December 19, 2000

Wind, snow, ice and too much to do: about 10 people ignored all that Sunday to take part in the Soldotna portion of the 101st Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

The count was the second for the community after a hiatus in the late 1990s.

"It is nice to get back on to creating a long-term database," said organizer Jack Sinclair.

An Alaska State Parks ranger from Sterling, he volunteered to spearhead the project.

The information gathered will shed light on what birds live here in winter and how they are faring. The more consistent and enduring the counts are, the more they will tell us, he said.

"The longer you stretch it out, the more you can see trends and unusual things," he said.

About 8:45 a.m. participants gathered at Kaladi Brothers Coffee Co. in Soldotna. Sinclair sat at a table with maps, handouts and a plan.

The rules called for identifying and counting as many birds as possible in a single day within a circle 15 miles in diameter. For Soldotna, the circle centered on the headquarters of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on Ski Hill Road just south of town. It included all of Soldotna and Ridgeway, Kenai's Beaver Loop Road, 17 miles of the Sterling Highway from Whisper Lake near Sterling to Orphea Lake near Kasilof, six miles of seacoast along Kalifornsky Beach Road and the Kenai River from Mile 2 to Mile 31.

The birders collected their coffee cups, divided into three groups and headed out as the skies grew light.

Urban bird watching was one of the first stops.

Between the mini malls and the Kenai River, gangs of ravens hung out, checking out the day's Dumpster scene. The birds in black quickly demonstrated that in practice a bird count is not as easy as it sounds in theory. They flew off around corners, reappeared high in the sky and sometimes seemed to follow the birders. Counting every bird once and only once suddenly seemed as elusive as a Florida vote count.

At 10:30 a.m., David Wartinbee pulled his Tahoe over by the corner of Kobuk and Redoubt and hopped out, binoculars in hand.


Biologist David Wartinbee from Rideway peers through the blowing snow on the shore of Cook Inlet. He was searching for birds to add to the annual Audobon Chistmas Bird Count, held Sunday in Soldotna. Despite weather conditions that hampered visibility, birders found a record number of species.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

The air was a-twitter. Overhead, moving dots zigzagged into the crown of a spruce tree, lifted off like leaves in a tornado and flitted into another tree a block farther away.

Wartinbee, who teaches biology at Kenai Peninsula College and has participated in bird counts for years in various states, stared after them. After a moment's intense scrutiny, he declared them to be 16 redpolls, based on the way they flew. A few blocks later, he spotted another flock. These he identified as crossbills, based on their larger size and white bars on their dark wings.

"We have seen a fair number of birds," he said. "I thought today would be a bust."

Around town, bird feeders hung forlorn, neglected by birds and humans, perhaps due to the lack of snow and abundant food sources still available on the bare ground. A few had seeds and a small, but animated, clientele of black-capped chickadees.

Down by the river things were hopping.

Checking the river involved creeping down the steep banks and stone cobbles slicked with sleet.

Winter waterfowl congregated on the open water: flocks of mallards, black and white goldeneyes and mergansers with their narrow, ridged beaks. The Kenai River attracted others, too: gulls, the ubiquitous ravens and, keeping a sharp watch on the others, the bald eagles.

The place with the real avian action was the borough landfill.

Sinclair noted that Audubon had flagged last year's Soldotna count of 185 bald eagles as an unusually high count. However, Alaska birders know that a well-situated dump on the Last Frontier hosts enough of the big raptors to make Lower 48 bird watchers swoon with envy.

Sunday's group made two separate counts at the landfill to improve the accuracy of dealing with the swarm.

At noon, Wartinbee stood high on a hill of compacted trash, field glasses in hand, meticulously working around the 360-degree panorama of trash and trash-loving birds. He called out numbers as a companion jotted them on a tally sheet for later summing.

The roof of the trash-compacting building was white with gulls. The gulls and ravens squabbled in noisy swarms, lifting off in ripples as bulldozers approached or wind-blown plastic bags spooked them. All around, watching the spectacle, dozens of eagles perched in the trees like vultures, their silhouettes bulky against the snowy sky.

Wartinbee counted 118 eagles, few compared to the 127 ravens and 262 gulls there.

After noon, the snow intensified and the weak light faded early from the sky. A stop by the Warren Ames Bridge at the Kenai River Estuary revealed that the flats, so popular with migratory birds in spring, were desolate in the snowstorm.

Not a bird was seen, although a pair of coyotes trotted along the frozen creek beds and rooted for rodents in the withered grass.

"Our counting fell off at 1:30, 2 o'clock, because of the visibility," Sinclair said later.

Wartinbee complained that this year's weather and visibility were far worse than last year's, but he plans to be back next year along with the other birders.

"I always look forward to the bird count because it's an excuse to get out and look at birds," he said.

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