By Joseph Robertia
While lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice, an equally unusual occurrence has been happening on the Kenai Peninsula this winter as not just one, but two more rare bird sightings have taken place in a winter already marked by a number of odd avian identifications.
A Siberian Accentor — a small bird with a brown-streaked back and yellowish eyebrows and underparts — showed up in Seward late last month, while several small groups of bramblings — long-winged, long-tailed birds with orange to their breasts and shoulders — have been seen in not just Seward, but several other locations, since their November arrival.
“The Siberian Accentor is really exciting. The last observation of one was in Hope back about 20 years ago, so this is a big deal,” said Ken Tarbox, of the Keen Eye Birders, a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist, and one of the organizers of the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail Guide.
Seward birders Kit and Janet Durnil first spotted the Siberian Accentor on Jan. 22. They knew they had never seen a bird with a mask like the accentor, but they weren’t entirely sure what they were seeing. They called Carol Griswold, an avid Seward birder who leads bird-watching trips to see unusual species, such as this.
Griswold said that the bird has been a little tricky to spot. It’s been moving a bit and also traveling with other birds, including varied thrush and fox, golden-crowned, white-crowned and song sparrows.
“With much bare ground under the trees, and lots of brush piles, there is a lot of territory for the sparrows and accentor to hide,” she said. “Yes, the bird has usually been spotted near feeders, but sometimes on the mountainside. I think we see it at feeders because that is where we look, and when we don’t find it, it’s not at feeders.”
Toby Burke, a wildlife technician with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said that while the accentor is frequenting feeders, it most likely is not actively feeding on the seed offered.
“It’s not really known to be much of a seed eater,” he said. “Accentors typically make their living on insects, and it’s likely eating dormant bugs and spiders. It could also be eating suet just to get by, but if it’s eating seed, it’s only doing so opportunistically.”
Burke speculated that the bird might be moving with sparrows as an advantage for finding food and avoiding predators.
“The more eyes, the better,” he said.
Griswold maintains an Alaska Sporadic Bird Report blog, at http://sporadicbird.blogspot.com, where she documents rare bird sightings, including this recent oddity. She further described how “crafty” the accentor has been.
“Birders from Fairbanks, Anchorage, Kodiak, Soldotna, Homer and Seward (and probably other towns) converged on Seward this morning,” she said on her Jan. 26 blog. “Despite the dozens of birders, numbering upwards of 40, it proved elusive for hours.”
Not giving up, the birders were eventually rewarded for their perseverance, and as word spread in the days to weeks that followed, birders from other parts of the country also began arriving hoping to get a glimpse. Tarbox said that he is aware of birders coming from as far as Hawaii and Texas to see the accentor.
It’s a long way to come, but the birders are getting a little extra bang for their buck. According to Griswold, while attempting to see the accentor, many birders have also seen the small brambling flock first spotted in Seward by Anchorage birders Luke DiCiccio and Scott Schuette on Nov. 17. Griswold got her own opportunity to see them for the first time, which she also documented in her blog, on Jan. 25.
“Yesterday I documented a very bright brambling at the Alaska SeaLife Center parking lot, feasting on mountain ash pulp both in
the trees and on the ground, surrounded by at least 20 to 25 American robins. It was thrilling to finally get close enough for some really good views. This bird has a lot more going on than just an orangish breast band!” she wrote.
Several other brambling have been spotted in Seward, and Burke said that five to six have been seen in Homer, and a feeder in Kodiak has been host to a flock of seven. So many bramblings showing up in so many locations is unprecedented, he said.
“Having one show up every two or three years is usually notable, but this many showing up in one year is remarkable,” he said. “Normally if they’re seen in Alaska, it’s out in the Bering Sea islands or the Pribiloffs, and even there they are an accidental, so seeing so many on the mainland, and this far east — again, it’s remarkable.”
Burke explained that there have been numerous large storms this season, and these storms can often bring in birds from far away. But he and Tarbox also suggested that the trend might be attributed to the growing number of birders now looking for birds on the Kenai Peninsula.
“Five years ago we didn’t even have a bird club here, now there is one and there are 50 people in it,” Tarbox said.
“Also, as the birding community increases, so does its skill level,” he added. “This is a digital age where when someone sees a bird show up at their feeder they don’t recognize, they can take hundreds of photos and send them out electronically, almost immediately.”
Gone are the days of birders using a phone tree to announce a rare sighting, Burke said, and the same is true for bird hotlines that used to be only updated once a week to once a month. Now there are dozens of list-serves where birders can share what they’ve seen.
“One post of a bird can be seen by hundreds of people,” Tarbox said. “That raises every birders’ skill level.”