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.
The bird was more than a foot tall, with long gray legs and a long, straight, dark-colored beak. The plumage coloring was dark grayish brown above a lighter tone underneath. Not particularly noteworthy on first glance, but Burke grew up back East and is familiar enough with willets to know that, hidden under the unassuming plumage, is a white rump and dark band on the tail and distinctive, black-and-white pattern hidden on the wings.
“When the bird lifts its wings and flies it has a very striking black-and-white pattern, which really lets people know what it is. When
the bird isn’t flying it’s not very conspicuous, but when it does fly it’s very conspicuous and (the markings) helps people find the bird,” Burke said. “And they normally have a very loud vocalization. They do this ‘pill-will-will’ over and over again. People who are familiar with willets will know a willet by its vocalizations.”
But this bird remained as silent as it did still. So Burke got out of his vehicle and slowly approached the bird to see if it would flick its wings and give away its identity. The good news is, it did. The bad news is it did more than just flick, and flew away. The even worse news is Burke failed the cardinal rule of rare bird identification and didn’t snap a picture of it.
“It did raise its wings and I could see that it was for sure a willet. It paused and then, all of a sudden, it took off and flew, meaning it disappeared, so I felt bad because that makes it hard for other people to see it,” Burke said.
“Everyone was pretty excited because we didn’t have any previous records on the Kenai Peninsula, and there had never been one that had been substantiated here in Alaska,” Burke said. “When I first saw it I was in a little bit of disbelief because I knew it was really rare. And I messed up because, generally speaking, when you see a rare bird, you photograph it, so there’s proof — there’s documentation substantiating it, something definitive to show people. And I was shocked and I acted stupidly and I didn’t photograph the bird.”
He started calling other birders to report the sighting.
“When I initially told people they said, ‘OK, so you have photographs of it, don’t you?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, no, I don’t.’ And they said, ‘You do realize you probably made that same mistake that person did in 1961 up in the Minto Flats?’” Burke said.
His wife, Julie Burke, came to the rescue. Burke needed to get back to work, but she came and spent two hours spotting on the flats, and eventually located and photographed the bird.
“Fortunately other people found the bird and photographed it so I don’t look like as big a dummy,” Burke said.
Burke also called Ken Tarbox, with the Keen Eye Birders. As word of the willet sighting spread, Tarbox spent the weekend guiding locals and visitors to the flats to help them see the bird. By Monday he’d taken more than 20 people out to see the willet, and had been successful every time — a success ratio far out of proportion to the difficulty of the task.
“It’s harder than it sounds because birds move and they don’t always want to be seen, especially this bird walking through the tall mash grass. Ken has been very gracious and instrumental in helping other people find the bird. He’s spent a lot of time bringing people to this bird and helping people find it,” Burke said.
Tarbox said he’s happy to do it.
“When something this unique happens in the birding community everybody of course wants to see the bird, so it’s good to have somebody locally who’s retired who can go do that,” said Tarbox, who is a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist. “I don’t mind it at all. And, plus, it’s a chance to showcase the Kenai Flats to a lot of people from around the state, to show how important a birding area it is.”
People have been flocking to see the willet, from the central Kenai Peninsula to Homer and Seward, Anchorage and beyond. One birder hopped on a plane from Anchorage to Kenai, went straight to the flats, saw the willet and got back on a plane to Anchorage, Burke said. Another drove through the night from Fairbanks. Some people arranged carpools, while others just got in the car and took off.
“Bird watchers, we’re odd birds. Even though it’s a fairly common bird in the Lower 48, it’s different to see the bird here,” Burke said.
Eastern willets are common in marine environments along the East Coast. Western willets — of which the Kenai bird appears to be one — are less common along the actual West Coast, but still are usual to see in freshwater environments — and occasionally saltwater areas — in the West, sometimes spreading so far inland that the eastern and western willets overlap ranges in the winter, Burke said. But neither is known to migrate as far north as Alaska.
“We all get excited about birds that are rare. Even though that bird may have been really common where we grew up, or anyone up here could take a flight down to different points in the Lower 48 and see the bird easily, but when it’s in Alaska people say, ‘Oh, I have to see this bird because it’s an Alaska willet,’” Burke said.
Adding to the excitement of a prospective sighting is the uncertainty of how long the willet may stick around. Burke said he’d just be speculating to guess why it’s here in the first place. It may be that it overshot its intended migratory destination, or it might be exploring a new range. It may be that it already bred at a lower latitude and decided to keep heading north in the post-breeding dispersal. Or perhaps it is lost and lovelorn, wandering north still looking for a mate. In that case, it will have as much luck bellying up to a beer-serving bar as it will finding a mate on an Alaska sandbar.
“It’s purely a matter of conjecture why it’s up here, but birds make mistakes, too. For instance, if a bird wanted to breed and came up here and couldn’t find a mate, well, then, that bird made the wrong decision,” Burke said.
However it came to be here, the willet has apparently found the Kenai Flats to be a hospitable resting spot.
“Evidentially there is suitable feeding habitat here, because the bird is staying here, meaning that it is finding food to eat. If there wasn’t enough food the bird wouldn’t stay,” Burke said.
But for how long is anybody’s guess, leaving birders wanting to add the first confirmed Alaska willet to their list to decide whether to head to the flats immediately or, if native to a range father away, to be more strategic about their own migration to Kenai.
“A lot of times it’s a guessing game for most folks. We don’t know if a bird will be there for an hour or be there for a month. So some people will just drop everything and run and then other people will say, ‘Well, let’s see if it will persist,’ because they don’t want to risk spending $50 or $100 or more in gas money and have nothing to show for it,” Burke said. “There are some people that are really hardcore and dedicated birders who have been chasing birds for 40 or 50 years, and any time they get the chance to see a new bird they’ll drop everything and run, even with expensive gas.”
Birders’ quick action over the weekend was rewarded with sightings of the willet. On the online AK Birding forum, Joe Staab, of Seward, posted that he went to Kenai on Friday and, “Had great looks at the willet. Want to thanks to Toby and Laura Burke for the finding of the bird and a big thank you to Ken Tarbox who was there to show it to me! What a great group of birders over at the Soldotna/Kenai area, we are lucky to have them on the big birding team.”
Cathy Foerster, of Anchorage, posted on Monday that, “Although I’ve seen plenty of willets in Texas, it was spectacular to see one here.”
Mr. Whitekeys, well-known Alaska entertainer, owner/operator of the former Fly By Night Club in Anchorage, and president of the Anchorage Audubon — made an at-first reluctant drive to Kenai on Saturday.
“I had almost not gone to Kenai. I was dogsitting for the weekend with my buddy’s mutt Steve McQueen, who hates me, but I bribed him with treats and off we went. When Ed Clark heard this on the Kenai Flats, he set me straight: ‘You idiot. When you hear about a bird, don’t think. Just GO and go FAST!’ So the best birding advice I can give you is this: Dogs LOVE potato chips, but they drink an awful lot of water and Turnagain Pass, Tern Lake, Jim’s Landing, and Moose River are great places to walk a dog,” he wrote. “… A bazillion thanks to Ken for getting everyone on the willet. … The bird was extremely cooperative.”
Tarbox advises to get to the flats soon before this rare willet becomes once again as unseen as it had been unheard of in Alaska. Bring a spotting scope and patience, he recommends. Start out on Boat Launch Road and look into the ponds to the south of the road. If not seen from there, try going to the viewing pullout on Bridge Access Road and looking northeast toward the ponds. If an experienced birder, or with an experienced guide, birders may walk out onto the flats for a better look, but be sure not to trample the vegetation, disturb the birds or accidentally step into a slough. Most importantly, be respectful, and enjoy the experience, he said.
“The main thing is we want people to respect the bird and respect the habitat out there,” Tarbox said. “This bird is bringing everybody to the Kenai Flats, and a lot of them are seeing it for the first time — actually being out on the flats as opposed to just driving by on the road. It’s just a really special place that Kenai and Soldotna has here that we can use, and it’s just an incredible place out there for birds.”