By Jenny Neyman
One bird, two birds, three birds, four or five hundred more — it must be Audubon Christmas Bird Count time.
Saturday was the date of this year’s count on the central Kenai Peninsula, with 29 participants divvying up 11 count sectors within a 15-mile circle centered about two miles west of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Soldotna, and covering the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
“So we’re able to get quite a few water birds, shorebirds, or at least opportunities to see those,” said Jack Sinclair, area compiler for this area’s annual participation in the bird count.
It’s a longstanding, wide-ranging tradition, this being the 114th year of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count in the United States, with participation expanding across North, Central and South America. Each year, tens of thousands of volunteers take to the field in their area’s circle to count numbers of bird species and numbers of individual birds on a day they choose within the designated count window, Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. The bird count period actually extends three days before and three days after the selected count day. During that window additional species can be observed and included, but not additional birds. At the end of the count week, the data is sent to the National Audubon Society, which maintains it in an online, searchable database.
“Any person can log on there and look at any of the counts from the 1900s to the present, and you can see the conditions and how trends have changed over time in different areas,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair has been participating in the Christmas Bird Count since 1985 in Seward.
“When I moved to Soldotna in 1990 I asked around. There was a circle that had been established but no one had been doing it for a while, so we kind of picked up the torch and ran with it,” he said. “I’ve been doing it here for about 24 years now. It’s turned into a long time.”
But worth the time, he said. On a personal level, it’s fun.
“It is a great activity. You don’t have to have a degree in ornithology, you don’t have to have great credentials, you don’t have to be a scientist. You just have to have an interest in getting outside and looking at birds. Here in Alaska, we have opportunities to see great birds. It’s something that I just enjoy doing, and once you start doing it you start to enjoy the habits of birds and watching them and seeing where they live. I’ve been enjoying it for a long time, probably since my first year in college,” he said.
On a scientific level, it’s a worthwhile contribution of information.
“One of the big things about the bird count is that it tends to show the trends of birds. It may not be exact as much as we’d like, but because of the participants returning and doing the same area year after year after year, you will see fairly good trends over time,” Sinclair said.
The Soldotna counts since 1990, for example, have documented some shifting patterns of birds over those years. Particularly notable is the increase in Northwestern crows over the last 10 years, moving up to the central Kenai Peninsula from the Homer area and other coastal stretches of Alaska.
“Most people who have been around here for a lot longer than that remember never, ever seeing a crow in Soldotna in the winter. It was just a raven’s haven, that was all we had around here,” Sinclair said.
Nowadays — specifically, Saturday during the count — what we have around here in the winter are lots of small birds, like chickadees and nuthatches, and the parking-lot crew of crows, ravens and bald eagles. In all, 32 species were counted Saturday.
“We didn’t see anything too out of the ordinary, that’s for sure. We did get a great horned owl and a northern goshawk, those are all really nice to have on our count, as well,” Sinclair said.
One of the highlights of this year’s count was tallying about 800 snow buntings in two flocks, one of about 500 birds and the other 300. They tend to gather in large flocks and like to winter in tall grass near the river mouths, but those are large numbers for this area, Sinclair said. Another prevalent species was bald eagles.
“We had 787 bald eagles counted, which was a big, high number for us on the Kenai for our bird count,” Sinclair said.
He and his wife did the lion’s share of bald eagle counting, as their assigned area is the eagles’ favorite winter hangout — the Central Peninsula Landfill.
“It’s because of the landfill. It definitely creates that attractant for the eagles to hang around here,” he said.
While that volume of birds to be counted can be challenging — every tree, every tire, every surface laden with eagles — at least they mostly roost still so counters can get through the landfill in an hour to an hour and a half.
“It takes some time and when the weather’s bad you have to just do the best you can with the conditions. But we had really good weather for the morning of the count. The snow subsided almost all the way until 1 o’clock, which was great,” he said.
If visibility is poor, counting is more difficult. Another challenge is if the birds are active.
“If any birds fly into your vision while you’re counting, from one side where you’re panning from, you can count them, but you have to be careful not to recount any birds. So you have to be conservative about your counts, rather than try to count every bird you see flying in,” he said.
It helps to know bird habits, too. In the Soldotna circle, for example, bald eagles tend to spend the morning at the landfill, head to the mouth of the river looking for food in the afternoon and then head back to the landfill.
“After a certain time during the day we all stop counting ravens, bald eagles and gull types because they do move around in the afternoon, so they could move into another person’s circle,” he said.
Counters move, too. Some count sectors are geographically larger than others, or more logistically challenging to canvass.
“Just doing the streets of Soldotna, going through each of these neighborhoods and trying to find where the birds are and if there are any feeders or things like that takes some time,” Sinclair said.
At the end of the day the counters gather for a potluck to tally their counts and record how much time they spent and how many miles they covered.
“It’s a great way to get everybody together. And we get to tell stories and visit with one another, too, so it was a great day altogether,” Sinclair said.
The Keen Eye Birders are active in the Christmas Bird Count so there’s a core group of volunteers who participate year after year. Each year brings out a few new counters, as well.
“It’s a great winter activity — a way to get outside and just be aware of your environment and see the birds that are here. So we try to attract more people. We don’t expect we’re going to get hoards of them, but I’d say there’s always two or three or four more who want to join in,” Sinclair said.
“This is not exact science but it’s called citizen science, which is what the bird count is all about — getting people involved,” he said.