On wings of change — Historic birding accounts note avian population trends

Photo courtesy of Jim Taylor. Huge flocks of snow geese used be a regular yearly sight on the Kenai River Flats before Bridge Access Road was constructed. That is no longer the case.

Photo courtesy of Jim Taylor. Huge flocks of snow geese used be a regular yearly sight on the Kenai River Flats before Bridge Access Road was constructed. That is no longer the case.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Though it had no airline flights, highways or cruise ships 100 years ago, the Kenai Peninsula still drew visitors, both of the human and feathered varieties.

It was from records of human visitors at the turn of the 20th century that Todd Eskelin, fish and wildlife biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, began to piece together a history of bird populations on the Kenai Peninsula.

Documentation from three exploratory expeditions to Alaska, including Cook Inlet, in 1899, 1900 and 1901 give a glimpse of some changes that have taken place, and individual birders over the years have added observations to the knowledge base.

“None of the information that we have from the Kenai and Kasilof flats is state- or government-sponsored surveys. It really is individual birders and not scientists that are paid to go and generate the information that tells us how important these spots are,” Eskelin said.

The Harriman expedition in June-July 1899, the Osgood expedition in August-September 1900 and a few references from the Andrew Stone expedition of 1901 give some basis for comparing bird populations from a century ago to now. Back then, common eiders were indeed common around Kachemak Bay. Today, only a few are found during winter and early spring.

A frequent sight today, the northwest crow 100 years ago was a frequent sight only as far northwest as Valdez.

These days, among woodpeckers, the three-toed variety is the most ubiquitous on the peninsula, but only one specimen was recorded by the expeditions, and Native residents at the time were reportedly unfamiliar with the bird.

The records also don’t note seeing black-capped chickadees, American robins or a couple of now-common waterfowl, including northern pintails and American wigeons.

The absence of observations could mean a variety of things, Eskelin said. It’s possible the expeditions visited the peninsula during the chickadees’ nesting time, for example, so just missed them. The lack of robins might say more about an inflated population today, owing to the growth of apple orchards in their winter grounds in Washington. And waterfowl in general seemed to be suffering from depressed populations nationally around 1900, he said.

Other bird population changes have been tracked with more certainty over the years, particularly with advances in technology. One early indication of bird populations wasn’t even to count the birds themselves, but to count feathers seen adorning hats in the late 1880s. American Museum of Natural History ornithologist Frank Chapman published such a survey, conducted in Manhattan in 1886. On two walks along the street, he noted 21 common tern feathers, 23 cedar waxwing, five blue jay, one greater yellowlegs, 15 snow buntings, one green-backed heron and one greater prairie chicken feathers, among many others.

Bird surveys are much easier and more accurate today. At first it was just eyes and ears doing the work. Then biologists could go out with VHF radios and antenna and triangulate the location of birds.

“But with satellite you don’t even have to go find that bird, because the satellites find them,” Eskelin said.

Graphic courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collection. The Harriman Expedition of 1899 traveled from Seattle up to the Seward Peninsula, Russia and back, including a trip up Cook Inlet, with the scientists onboard taking copious notes of their observations along the way.

Graphic courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collection. The Harriman Expedition of 1899 traveled from Seattle up to the Seward Peninsula, Russia and back, including a trip up Cook Inlet, with the scientists onboard taking copious notes of their observations along the way.

One of the most obvious is the proliferation of bald eagles on the Kenai Peninsula.

They used to be transient birds, visiting when natural food sources were available and leaving when not. But they are suckers for an easy meal — like they used to get at the Soldotna landfill, or by hanging around charter boats in Ninilchik when they pitched the day’s fish carcasses, and especially from the “Eagle Lady” and friends in Homer who used to feed the birds on the Spit.

Eskelin said he used to count four to eight bald eagles in a spring day around Kenai, but has since seen as many as 800 in one day at the landfill.

“A lot of these fed populations of bald eagles just tend to not go back to their breeding grounds. They hang out and wait for food,” he said. “… But the good part of the story is they’re not making babies so they’re not teaching their babies to come to the dump.”

On the flip side, the once-common sighting of snow geese on the Kenai River flats has drastically diminished.

“We don’t see them that much anymore,” Eskelin said. “There were probably some changes at the flats to make them less hospitable, and maybe areas on the west side (of Cook Inlet) have opened up and are more hospitable than the flats.”

The construction of Bridge Access Road or even the 1964 earthquake might have been factors, and the flats in general have been experiencing a 30-year drying trend, Eskelin said.

It’s still an incredibly important habitat for birds, along with the Chickaloon, Kasilof and Fox rivers. The mouth of the Kasilof River, for instance, was discovered to host a huge population of wintering rock sandpipers of the Pribilof subspecies.

“I think it was in 2006 when we had half the world’s population (10,000 birds) in that one spot. That was pretty cool to see. Of course, they’re half frozen — it’s January and February — then you’ll be sitting there and a merlin (hawk) will come in and 5,000 birds about take your hat off,” Eskelin said.

Still, the Kenai flats reign supreme in diversity and quantity of birds.

“Over half of the birds, including all the seabirds, that have been identified on the Kenai Peninsula have been found right at the Kenai flats (187 species out of the 300 or so for the whole peninsula). So it gives you a sense of how valuable it is,” Eskelin said.

In the summer, the flats are home base to a massive colony of gulls, including the nearly all-white Iceland gull. Five hundred or more sandhill cranes might stop for a respite on their annual migratory path. Waterfowl, including breeding pintails, bob along in the marshes. Stands of trees can host great gray, horned and snowy owls. And the expanses of brackish water are a red-carpet welcome mat for various shorebirds, like black-bellied plovers, short-billed dowitchers, and occasionally some really rare sightings, like the willet that made an appearance in 2012.

The area is important to birders, as well, because it’s the most easily accessible of the peninsula’s prime bird habitats, with great birding opportunities year-round.

“The Kenai flats is one of best places to go and view shorebirds in the spring because they’re right next to you. You go down to Homer and you’re looking through this scope a mile away, or you could just drive down the port road and all the same species and then some are right next to your car. Even a terrible photographer like myself can get shots up close. So it’s just an awesome place for birders to come,” Eskelin said.

Of course, the one constant about change is that it will continue to occur.

“If you look at threats to any of these birding spots, it’s parking lots, it’s roads to provide dip-net access, it’s helipads, it’s cattle grazing in Fox River. Some of those threats, socially, we decide that that level of development is something that’s beneficial, so we make those sacrifices,” he said.

One thing Eskelin hopes does not change is the health of the peninsula’s best bird habitats.

“Those four rivers and those four estuaries are probably one thing that will still be here. And being the best birding areas — the most diversity — we’ve just got to keep that in mind as we continue to develop these sites,” he said.

Eskelin made his comments at a Kenai Historical Society meeting Sunday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. The society’s next meeting is at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 14.

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