By Joseph Robertia
The lingering cold temperatures and snow have meant a late start to spring this year, but for one group that’s provided a silver lining to a favorite activity. For birders, the late change in conditions has meant a late arrival of migratory birds, but once they showed up, they showed up in force.
“Things were delayed a bit, but it’s made for some great viewing opportunities now. Out on the Kenai Flats, you can see 10,000 birds a day right now, where usually you’d only be seeing about 5,000 a day,” said Todd Eskelin, an avid birder and biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
The bird congestion at the estuary areas at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers owes to many areas migratory birds would be frequenting still being frozen.
“A lot of areas are still locked up with ice, and definitely were at the end of last month. The waterfowl migration usually picks up at the end of April to the beginning of May, but with so much still frozen then, it’s compacted a six-week migration into three weeks,” he said.
This includes a wide range of species, according to Eskelin, from the early arriving Northern pintails to the mallards and other ducks that follow, to the slow buildup of geese — first snow, then the cackling species — and the arrival of the slender-necked, long-legged sandhill cranes.
“The white-fronted geese we saw about a bazillion of,” Eskelin said. “Lots landed and even more flew over. We saw probably eight to 10 thousand at any given moment in the Kenai Flats alone, when we had never seen more than two thousand in the past,” he said.
The numbers can quickly change, due to some birds landing for a day and then flying farther north, while other species may stick around for a few days, and move around the local area.
“You may see 8,000 one day and 4,000 the next, but it doesn’t necessarily mean half of them went north, they may just be over at the Kenai Golf Course,” he said.
So many birds showing up at once could be like ringing a dinner bell for the birds of prey that feed on them, but Eskelin said that while a few folks have seen eagles snatch a duck or goose here and there, there hasn’t be a huge pulse in the numbers of raptors seen.
“We’ve seen the usual numbers of eagles taking gulls, geese and other species, and we’ve seen some merlins making strafing runs on shorebirds. We’d expect there to be more peregrine falcons working over the waterfowl, but a lot of species are prey specific, so they may still be targeting rodents or other smaller things,” he said.
At backyard feeders, songbirds are showing up a little later than even the waterfowl.
“We haven’t seen a lot of spring birds yet,” said Maria Allison, who provides running water for avian visitors as well as seeds, peanut butter and other edible goodies at her home off Kalifornsky Beach Road.
“We got our first robin of the year on May 11, but last year we got our first one on April 23, so that was about three weeks later. We also got our first junco of the year on that day, and last year the first junco came on April 3, so that’s almost a month late,” she said.
In addition to the birds she and her husband, Tom, see, the Allisons identify many more by their songs, and she said they haven’t heard the usual species either.
“Ruby-crowned kinglets and warblers — we’re usually hearing them by now, and last year we heard our first white-crowned sparrow on May 8,” she said.
They just saw their first white-crowned sparrow Monday, Allison said.
For shorebirds, Eskelin said that the cool spring may or may not delay their arrivals.
“We could see some delays in shorebirds if they wait for estuaries to open up. They tend to have really defined spots they hit, and a whole group can hold up if anything is locked up in ice. But we’ve heard good reports from the Homer area and two willets were seen in Anchor Point last week — that’s rare for this area — so I’d think the local birding festival should benefit from the late winter by having more diversity and more stragglers,” he said.
The Kenai Birding Festival returns for its eighth consecutive year from May 16 to 19. The festival focuses on providing engaging, low-cost birding opportunities for birders of all ages and abilities, and this year will include some staple events from past years and a few new opportunities, according to Lisa Beranek, one of the organizers for the event.
One new event is Owl Night on May 17 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, with a special live guest from the Bird Treatment and Learning Center. A great horned owl will be onsite for a presentation, followed by a film on owls. The event is free, though donations will be accepted.
Following Owl Night, birders are invited to participate in the only 24-hour Big Sit to be held this year in Alaska. From 6 a.m. May 18 to 6 a.m. May 19, birders can spend as much time as they’d like on the Kenai Birding Platform along Bridge Access to Road, helping to record as many birds as possible. Festival staff and volunteers will be at the platform for 24 continuous hours to capture bird activity.
The Big Sit was developed following input after last year’s festival, according to Beranek.
“Last year the festival planning committee decided to get feedback from festival participants about their experience. Many of them appreciated the intimate, social feel of the festival, suggesting the addition of similar events,” she said.
“This is the same thought process behind the addition of the special Kenai Fjords Wildlife Tour on May 16. The committee wanted to add an event that offered a unique experience that would offer a social feel while birding for a discount in the Kenai Fjords National Park. The tour is early season so the crowds are minimal and there are additional guides, so with more trained eyes on-board the likelihood of seeing more wildlife is increased,” she said.
Reservations for this six-hour tour are available by calling 877-777-4051 and using Kenai Watershed Forum as the discount code. For more information on the Kenai Birding Festival, visit www.kenaibirdfest.com or find the festival on Facebook.