By Jenny Neyman
Needle in a haystack? Try finding one particular gull amid the nesting colony spending their summer on the Kenai River flats.
From a numbers standpoint — with tens of thousands of gulls drawn to the quality nesting habitat of the river mouth estuary, plus the abundant food in the hooligan and salmon runs pulsing up the river from spring to fall — it’s a feather’s breadth away from impossible.
But to a trained birder’s eye, noticing one particular gull among the many isn’t all that difficult when the one in question sticks out like, in this case, a black back amid the sea of otherwise white and light gray.
That dark spot against a wash of white was what caught the attention of Rich MacIntosh, a birder from Kodiak who took a day trip to Kenai on July 19 on his way to Anchorage in order to do some birding on the Kenai flats.
While scanning the topography near the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge, to take stock of the variety of migratory birds that call Kenai home in the summer, he couldn’t help but notice a large flock of glaucous-winged and herring gulls, with their orange legs and white-and-light-gray plumage. Harkening to the “Sesame Street” song, he noticed that one of those things was not like the others.
“There was a flock of several hundred gulls, and you can see a flock of several hundred gulls from a mile away, and you go there and you set up a telescope and you scan through the birds until you see something that looks different,” he said.
There, amid the gray and white, was white and black.
“It’s very, very different from any gull that regularly occurs down there, in that it has a very, very dark back. All the other large gulls you would find in the Kenai area have pale gray backs,” MacIntosh said.
He noticed the bird also had yellow legs, rather than orange, which pegged it as a lesser black-backed gull, a rarity for the Kenai Peninsula. Occasionally the birds are seen in coastal areas of Alaska — including Kodiak, which is where MacIntosh had seen it before — but there has only been one previously recorded sighting of this bird on the peninsula, on July 7, 2010, in Anchor Point. The gull is typically found in Europe and Asia, with four subspecies separated by region and distinguishable by their shading, said Todd Eskelin, a biological technician with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
The British Isles, Iceland and northern France subspecies of lesser black-backed gull, with a dark-gray back, can be found on the East Coast of the U.S. There also is a subspecies located in Asia, with a jet-black back. When lesser black-backed gulls appear in Alaska, there can be argument in the birding community whether it’s the European version — most common in the U.S. but having to make a migration not only across the Atlantic, but also from the East Coast across the country to Alaska — or the Asian version — which would only need to cross the Pacific.
“When we get some in Alaska there’s always debate as to whether it’s the Asian one or the European one,” Eskelin said. “For all intents and purposes, unless you’re an expert on these particular gulls, it’s probably fairly difficult to tell (the subspecies) apart. A lot of it has to do with how dark the back is. Compared to our glaucous-winged gulls and herring gulls, these just look dark,” Eskelin said.
When MacIntosh saw the gull, he called a birding friend in Anchorage to report it, who then got in touch with Ken Tarbox of the Keen Eye Birders club. He and his wife, Connie, went out to the flats Thursday evening and were able to confirm the sighting and get a few pictures of the gull before it flew off. The next day, July 20, a sighting of a lesser black-backed gull was reported in Anchor Point. There’s no way to know if it’s the same bird or two different ones.
Either way, sighting such a rarity on the peninsula is a thrill for birders, Tarbox said, adding to an already-noteworthy year of exciting bird sightings locally.
“There’re just neat birds showing up all over. There seems to be an unusually high number of sightings of birds that haven’t been here before, or aren’t seen here often, so I don’t know if it’s the way the weather patterns are setting up to bring these birds north or what. Some birds are always going to migrate out of their range. And some of these birds have been moving across the country anyway and expanding their range in the sightings in the U.S., so who knows? I just know that, for a birder, it’s exciting,” Tarbox said.
On June 22, a willet was spotted on the Kenai flats. The migratory shorebird in the sandpiper family is common to the East Coast but a sighting had never before been verified in Alaska. The willet delighted birders with regular sightings into July, but hasn’t been seen for a few weeks now. Tarbox said he hopes it has gone on to its more-usual range in the Lower 48, and didn’t end up having its journey end in Kenai.
“Birds are starting their reverse migrations. It may be that some biological clue kicked in and it took off. The other option is it could have been preyed upon, so let’s hope that it just migrated,” he said.
Eskelin also said it’s been a good year for sighting rarities. In mid-June at Stormy Lake, in Nikiski, he heard a common yellowthroat warbler. It’s mostly a coastal species in Alaska, not so common to this area with reports of it only about every five years. The yellowthroat is notoriously secretive, and though Eskelin heard it, he didn’t get a look at it.
At the end of June he saw a Hammond’s flycatcher at Birch Ridge Golf Course, in Soldotna. It’s a common breeder in the Fairbanks area, but unusual on the peninsula. He heard it singing and watched it for about five minutes before it flew off, and hasn’t been reported since.
“And we have had an inordinate amount of Caspian tern sightings, not just on the Kenai, but the whole region has been picking up Caspian terns a little more frequently than usual,” Eskelin said.
It’s difficult to tease out why, exactly, seeing unusual birds has become such a usual occurrence on the Kenai this year.
“That’s always a mystery. A lot of people try to point to climate change for various things. With bird movement it doesn’t have to be that our climate has improved for them, so they come here. It could be that their climate or habitat or food have deteriorated somewhere else, or they’re having a bad year somewhere else because of storms. There’s a lot of different climate factors that can push birds here, there’s just no good way to speculate a cause,” Eskelin said.
It’s also possible that there aren’t necessarily more unusual birds passing through the area as there are more birders to spot them and more resources to report and share the sightings.
“We’re starting to get into a cycle where we have good avenues for people to report stuff, and Toby (Burke, a biological technician and birding expert with the refuge) and I have made ourselves available enough that people will report directly to us. Social networking has really increased the ability for sightings to get out there to people and get confirmed. Between that and having a good populace of good birders actually looking now has helped, and then you throw in climate change factors, as well,” Eskelin said.
He pointed to a few avenues for reporting bird sightings, including the online eBird checklist program, at http://www.ebird.org, launched by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society; the local Keen Eye Birders’ website at http://kenaibirdfest.com, and by calling the Central Peninsula Birding Hotline, maintained by the refuge, at 262-2300.
MacIntosh recommends that peninsula residents and visitors get out and take in all the birding hotspots the Kenai area has to offer.
“It’s a pretty spectacular place for birds in all seasons, actually, it’s not just for summer. There’s something very interesting about that area and very valuable for bird life in every season, and every season is different,” he said.
No matter where you live or visit, though, birding is an ever-changing, always-possible hobby.
“As a birder you go out in the field and you look for stuff and you study birds and their habits and behaviors and appearances and what not, and you learn more about them. No matter where you are you can do that,” MacIntosh said. “You can do that in Manhattan or you can do that in the Arctic — absolutely anywhere you go there’s birds. So it’s a neat hobby because whenever you have a spare moment you can pursue it.”