By Naomi Klouda
Kachemak Bay birders counted 12,395 individuals during the 112th annual Audubon Bird Count on Saturday, a blustery day around Kachemak Bay that ushered in yet another storm and dim visibility.
A surprise guest is generally among the tally, and this year brought forth the rough-legged hawk. It’s a migratory hawk that lives in the Alaska and Brooks Range, and hadn’t been seen in Kachemak Bay before. Another new sighting was the chestnut-backed chickadee that showed up at a feeder on West Hill Road.
“They occur on the south side of the bay in dense forest. But we virtually never see them up here except for this year,” said Dave Erikson, who is Homer’s foremost birding authority and has been studying species and compiling numbers in the annual count for the past 35 years.
As the numbers were compiled from Saturday’s effort, it became apparent some populations are benefiting greatly from the abundant snowshoe hare population. Gosshawks and owls are in healthy numbers, though the count tallied only a few of the great-horned owl.
“They are nocturnal, to begin with, so we try to listen for their calls on the night before,” Erikson said. “The wind and rain was loud, however, so we couldn’t hear them.”
Some species were numerous. Mallard ducks that were rafted together in Mud Bay, hunkered down in the storm, totaled 3,351. The black and white greater scaup sea ducks numbered 2,046.
“That’s a good count. We missed a lot of common birds and saw some that weren’t as common. Birds were hunkered down, protecting themselves from the wind and rain. We didn’t see many out flying,” Erikson said.
Eagles aren’t showing up in large numbers on the Homer Spit like they were when supplemental feedings occurred there by Eagle Lady Jean Keene. But they are in abundance at the Homer Landfill, where 182 were counted. Crow flocks normally range at about 1,000 individuals in the Christmas bird counts, but this year, due to poor visibility, only half of that number were counted. Ravens numbered near 300.
Birders were disappointed they didn’t find the emperor goose pair that had been hanging around, or the McKay’s bunting. There were 150 other buntings counted, however.
“It was a very wet and blustery day,” said Lani Raymond, a Kachemak Bay birder. “Rain-snow down in town and very wet snow up in the higher elevations made for not good visibility.”
Icy conditions underfoot also made it slow going.
But the day already started out well for Raymond when she was accidently awoken at 3:30 a.m. by snow sliding off the roof. She heard a great horned owl. “I was instantly 100 percent awake so I went down and listened out the back door to be sure. Yes it was — the first bird. Somewhat clear skies with the moon shining down on all those bunnies, probably,” Raymond wrote in an email.
It was also inspiring at 2 p.m., when the day was already turning dark, to find an American robin at the top of a tree.
“You just have to smile when you see a robin in December, especially when you’re all wet and cold,” she said.
Erikson gave a birding class Thursday night at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. He advises those interested in birding to learn the major characteristics of species.
“Use all your senses to absorb details — what does it look like in its dominant features? Once you get it down, then go to the bird book,” he said.
Noting a bird’s size, shape, length of neck, wings and bodies are all characteristics to help identify it. Is the body compact? Is its neck long and thin? Color patterns, behavior and location spotted also are keys.
“Some birds only hop, like the robin. Perching versus climbing will tell you something, as well. Are they bobbing, pecking or probing? The red-breasted nuthatch eats upside down,” Erikson said.
Going through numerous slides of birds by their family type — thrushes, finches, sparrows, kinglets, robins, gulls, hawks and owls — Erikson’s class shows how classifying the birds is the first step.
The rest is field observation. This year, the Kachemak Bay Birders attracted 40 people to the count, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., covering a seven-mile radius.