By Jenny Neyman
Had Toby Burke been back East when he saw the long-beaked, long-legged shorebird sitting in the grass rimming a tidal pool along Boat Launch Road in Kenai on Friday morning, he wouldn’t have given it another look. But he was in Alaska, and once he realized what the bird might be, his eyes all but popped out of his head.
“There’s only been one previous sighting in Alaska, and it was unsubstantiated — never photographer or unequivocally proven — in August 1961 in the Minto Flats. So this one here is at least the first one that’s been documented, if not the first one that’s been seen in Alaska,” said Burke, a technician for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
He’s speaking of a willet, a migratory shorebird in the sandpiper family common to the East Coast, known in the West, and extremely rare in Alaska.
“We’re about 1,500 miles from its closest breeding range, and they don’t tend to wander a whole lot to the far north like this,” Burke said.
He had been out conducting a survey of breeding birds on the estuary flats at the mouth of the Kenai River on Friday morning and figured he’d take a quick detour down Boat Launch Road off Bridge Access Road to see if anything interesting caught his eye. He glanced at the tidal pool near the road, since there’s usually at least a dowitcher or some other shorebird hanging out.
“I looked over and just on the edge of the grass I saw this bird that superficially looks like a greater yellowlegs, which is a local breeder here. But then I looked at it and went, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not a yellowlegs,’” he said.