A tradition for the birds

Posted: Tuesday, December 19, 2000

This is a season of traditions -- holidays, holy days, family visits or bowl games. One group with its own special event of the season is bird watchers.

This year they are celebrating the 101st Audubon Christmas Bird Count, and central peninsula birders held their count Sunday in Soldotna.

This year's tally showed the highest variety ever documented for the area's event.

"This is the highest, I think, of any count in the past on one day," said organizer Jack Sinclair.

The preliminary numbers showed 1,198 birds of 27 species. The most common birds spotted were gulls, ravens, mallards and bald eagles. The most unusual find was a northern shrike spotted by Bill Shuster.

"They are a solitary, predatory bird," Sinclair said. "They are not real numerous, but they are residents of the Kenai."

This year, seven adults and three children took part in the Soldotna counting.

The National Audubon Society, which organizes the counts, estimated that 55,000 birders are taking part in 1,800 counts this year throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The counts can be any day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.

This year, Sinclair chose Sunday for Soldotna to avoid the Christmas and New Year's weekends.

"Anything we see (the rest of) this week also counts toward our species," he said.

Ornithologist Frank Chapman started the bird counts in 1900 as a humane alternative to 19th-century holiday hunting parties that challenged gunners to see how many birds they could bag in a day.

In the decades since, the bird count has grown into an enormous citizen science project. Audubon works with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and, starting this year, Bird Studies Canada to compile and distribute the results.

The information is the world's longest-running database on bird distribution and is used by scientists to monitor bird populations and the environment. Anyone can look up the information on the Internet

at www.birdsource.org.

The oldest bird count in Alaska is Anchorage's, which dates back to 1942. The state's second and third oldest are in Homer and Seward, which began bird counts in 1961 and 1962, respectively.

Sinclair said those coastal communities sometimes spot exotic birds that send the professionals scurrying down from Anchorage to confirm sightings. However, the central peninsula seldom sees marine wanderers.

"We didn't see any strange Asiatic drifters," he said. "I don't think anything is going to be questioned here."

The first Soldotna bird count was in 1984. About five years ago, the tradition lapsed. Last year Sinclair, who works for Alaska State Parks, took over organizing it.

"Last year we said, 'geez, it's the 100th anniversary.' We've got to get it started again," he said.

Eleven people, including nine tracking and two at feeders, took part in Soldotna's 2000 count. They reported 758 birds of 19 species.

The next big birding event will be the fourth annual Backyard Bird Count, scheduled for Feb. 16-19.

Bird lovers with all levels of birding skills are invited to participate in the counts.

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