Science of the Seasons: Bird count offers special sight

By Dr. David Wartinbee, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Dr. David Wartinbee. A Townsend’s solitaire is seen sitting on top of a spruce tree in Soldotna during the annual Christmas Bird Count on Saturday.

This weekend was the 111th Christmas Bird Count, and a local group of hardy birders headed out Saturday morning to assigned areas around Soldotna. The assignment is to spot, identify and count as many birds as we can within the designated area.

While I have been doing these bird counts for many years and I know most of the common local birds, I am in no way an expert on birds. I enjoy the company of fellow bird watchers and any excuse to be outside is good enough for me.

The area I have been scoping out during each count for the past several years is within the main business and residential areas of Soldotna. I drive around various neighborhoods as unobtrusively as possible, looking for birds at feeders or those that might be sitting on a tree. I don’t often get to see the unusual birds or the more glitzy birds, like hawks, owls or grouse. I usually see lots of ravens, Northwestern crows and, sometimes, bohemian waxwings.

This year things were little different.

The day started really slowly, and I suspect the reason was a temperature of minus 7. By the time I was more than halfway through my assigned area, I had only seen a bunch of ravens, a couple bald eagles and two magpies. This was really slow and, to be honest, kind of boring.

Then I spotted a flock of bohemian waxwings working on the berries of a mountain ash tree. Soon I was making a lot more notes in various squares on my bird list. Then I spotted a bird off in the distance on top of a spruce tree. It was fairly far away, so I drove closer.

The bird moved to another treetop and I still couldn’t tell what it was, so I turned into a cul-de-sac where I could see

A Townsend's solitaire sits in a chokecherry tree. They feed on the cherry fruits hanging on the tree and those fallen on the ground.

the bird a little more closely. With my binoculars I could now see it clearly, and I still didn’t have a clue what it was. It looked somewhat familiar, but those I thought of should all have migrated south by now. I realized I did not know what was in front of me. Surely it was a common bird I had simply overlooked?

I got my camera out and started taking pictures. Maybe I could get a good enough picture for someone to tell me what I was seeing? The unknown bird was nice enough to fly down to a tree that was even closer. As I took more pictures, I was even more certain that I was way over my head in terms of identifying this bird.

I called the local bird count coordinator, Jack Sinclair with Alaska State Parks, and asked if he might be able to come and help ID this bird. He started heading my way but the bird had flown away before he arrived. I showed him the many pictures I had taken and he could tell me that my wild guesses were wrong. However, he didn’t know what it was, either.

I completed my route and spotted several interesting birds, like a Northern goshawk. This had been a pretty good day of bird-watching after all, but I still had an unknown bird to identify.

A quick download of digital images and a few enlargements revealed some pictures that should help me figure out what had been sitting on top of that tree. With a couple clear images and my trusty Sibley’s bird guide, I was still completely stumped. It was time to call in the real experts.

That evening the birders gathered for a potluck and a bird-count tally from the many teams that spread out around Soldotna. I presented a number of pictures of the unknown bird to Toby Burke, a well-known bird expert who works for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

He knew what it was and confirmed that it was, indeed, a rare bird — a Townsend’s solitaire. It had not been reported in any of our previous bird counts. No wonder I didn’t know what I was seeing.

Burke said these birds are related to robins and have their characteristic light eye ring. They are also frugivores (they eat fruits), which explains why it was hanging out near a chokecherry tree. They are normally found much farther south, especially in the winter months.

The take-home message from this day is multifaceted. First, there are lots of birds out there that many of us will not recognize the first time we see one. Second, taking pictures of unidentifiable birds will enable experts to provide that needed name. The last lesson I gained from this day of birding is that there are some very good bird experts in our area and they will gladly help you learn what it is you are seeing.

On Sunday a number of us returned to the area and all of us were able to see this bird again and verify the identification. Because a Townsend’s solitaire is so rarely seen, the sighting has been posted on a couple birding websites. This week there will be a number of avid birders looking at the tops of trees around the corner of Marydale and Kobuk, all hoping to add this bird to their “life list” of sightings. For more pictures and information of the bird sighting, check out the Keen Eye Birders page on Facebook, or kenaibirdfest.com.

David Wartinbee, Ph.D, J.D., is a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus. He is writing a series of columns on the ecology of the Kenai River and Cook Inlet watershed.

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