In your own backyard

Bird-watching opportunities abound on Kenai Peninsula

Posted: Friday, December 27, 2002

Over a breakfast of homemade waffles with lowbush cranberry syrup and fresh ground coffee, Tom and Maria Allison enjoy their morning ritual of watching the birds begin to feed as the day's first light arrives.

The Allisons are avid bird-watchers who have seen 400 to 500 birds at once at their backyard feed stations in Kenai. They've had more than 40 different species come to their feeders in past years, including summer visits by the smallest birds in Alaska -- rufous hummingbirds.

Maria got Tom into bird-watching several years ago during a trip to Denali National Park. Tom had seen the vibrant golden hue of the Wilson's warbler and thought it was a "wild canary."

"I new I'd been had," Tom said. "I was hooked after that."

Already this winter they've been seeing some redpolls, dark-eyed juncos, pine grosbeaks, hairy and downy woodpeckers and a few white-winged crossbills -- just to name a few of their feathered visitors.

"They're starting to crowd around the feeders now that we've had some snow," Tom said.

Bird feeding basics Learn to identify the birds in the area and what the feed on. This will help when making the decision of what type of food items to offer, especially if you're interested in seeing a specific species.

Clean feeders and feed stations regularly. Shake out feeders before refilling and remove any wet clumps. Clean hulls off of platforms daily and disinfect feeders by scrubbing them with a weak, diluted bleach solution every few weeks. Rinse the feeders and allow them to completely dry before putting them back out.

Store seed in a clean, dry, air-tight container. If you're keeping the seed outside, make certain it is bear- and moose-proof. Try not to put out more seed than can be eaten by nightfall and be cautious with suet and peanut butter for the same reasons.

Never use grease, oil, or petroleum jelly on feeder poles in an attempt to dissuade squirrels. These substances can adhere to a bird's feathers making them useless for flight or insulation, and are impossible for them to preen out.

Try to make the bird feel at ease by putting feeders close to natural features such as trees, or by using brush piles or branches near the feed stations for them to perch on. Birds may be wary to eat at feeders that are completely open and exposed.

Try not to put feeders too close to windows unless using a screen or netting to keep them from colliding. Birds fed to close can accidentally fly into windows, injuring themselves and potentially breaking the glass.

-- JOSEPH ROBERTIA

Backyard birding is an easy to learn and easy to do hobby. All that's really needed to get started is binoculars, a field guide to the birds of the area, and, of course, the birds themselves.

Feeding options can range from simply spreading seed on a backyard stump or other structure to extravagantly designed stations constructed of wood, plastic, and metal. Identifying birds and learning about their behaviors can be stimulating, and watching them feed and interact with each other can be hours of entertainment.

Bird feeding provides enjoyment to many Alaskans each year, but people aren't the only ones to benefit from this hobby. The increased availability of food from feeding stations is believed to allow many species to extend their winter range much further northward.

The species attracted to feeders is determined primarily by the food offered -- and the Allison's don't discriminate. They have four feeders in their backyard and one in the front, not to mention the suet baskets, corn cobs and thistle they offer. Species like jays and magpies, which some people find undesirable, and squirrels, which many bird enthusiasts consider pests, are welcome guests to the Allison's yard.

"We've always got out peanut butter and we use a lot of cracked sunflower seeds and the black oil ones still in the shell," Tom said.

"A lot" is quite an understatement -- the Allison's already have fed out more than 900 pounds of seed this year alone.

"Sometimes I fill the feeders twice a day when lots of birds come in," Tom said. "Water is a must. They always need it in winter."

The Allisons use a 50-amp oilpan heater to prevent a shallow water dish from freezing up. The January 2003 issue of "Birds & Blooms" has some unique ideas for freeze-free watering devices for birds as well.

A few highlights from the Allison's many years of backyard bird-watching include a visit from a boreal owl, the occasional swoop of a sharp-shinned hawk preying on a siskin and a species of brambling that hadn't been observed in this area since 1953.

Audubon Society statistics indicate more than 65 million Americans partake in birding. It is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the country, second only to gardening.

Alaska is no exception. From novices at home watching birds visiting their backyard feeders, to seasoned ornithologists coming in search of rare "life list" birds, there is something for everyone.

Alaska has eight locations on the list of "100 Top North American Birding Hot Spots," including the Kenai Peninsula. Peninsula specialties include boreal chickadees, bohemian waxwings and spruce grouse in the Chugach National Forest. Also, red-faced cormorants, all three scoters and wandering tattlers around Kachemak Bay.

"Winter is an excellent time of year to begin learning to identify birds," Andrea Swingley, educational coordinator for the Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks, said.

Swingley explained that the number of species encountered in winter is lower than during the summer. This makes things easier on beginners who might otherwise be confused by the large number of birds with similar appearances.

It's easy to understand how one could get confused as Alaska boasts between 442 and 445 (depending on which authorities you consult) species of birds in 45 families.

"As natural food sources become more limited in winter, birds are more likely to visit artificial food sources like bird feeders," Swingley said.

Until recently, birds have been staying away from the feeders. This could be attributed to the natural food sources which had been readily available due to the trend of late season warm weather.

However, now that snow finally has fallen and temperatures dropped, many species are utilizing backyard feeders.

Two of the most commonly seen passerines (songbirds) on the peninsula include the common redpoll and the pine siskin which often flock in huge numbers. The common redpoll is a stubby-billed little finch that is easily identified by its bright red cap and the pinkish wash to its breast.

During winter, redpolls feed naturally on the seeds from birches, willows and alders, but can be drawn to tube feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, which they relish.

Redpolls also have a unique feature that is very unusual to birds of this family -- a pocketlike modification in their esophagus where they can store seeds to regurgitate and eat later. This allows them to take in more food during winter when the days are so short and the nights are so long and harsh, thus enabling them to survive low temperatures most other songbirds could not tolerate.

Like redpolls, pine siskins often invade the peninsula in high numbers, called irruptions. They are a dark, heavily streaked finch with a deeply notched tail. A touch of yellow in the wings and at the base of the tail can lend to their identification, but this feature is not always evident.

They prefer habitats of conifers and alders and, like the Redpoll, are often drawn to backyard feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, but will also gorge on thistle.

Other commonly seen but somewhat less glamorous birds are gray jays, black-billed magpies, and common ravens.

Red-breasted nuthatches and white-winged crossbills also can be abundant, but more typically are seen in pairs as opposed to flocks.

Some of the less likely to be seen passerines include the red crossbill, the ruby-crowned and the golden crowned kinglet, and the snow bunting.

So, despite the cold weather that has finally arrived and although many species are hibernating, winter is still an excellent time of year to don the binoculars and fill the feeders. Some exciting birding potentials still exist for those willing to pursue them.

Anyone interested in learning more about backyard bird-watching, birds they have seen and want to identify, or local birding organizations, can find more information on the web at www.alaskabird.org, www.birding.com, or www. audubon.org.



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