Category Archives: birds

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.

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Birds on the brain, nature at heart — Exploration leads to stewardship

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A visit from a male grosbeak can lead kids down the path of curiosity and care for their environment.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A visit from a male grosbeak can lead kids down the path of curiosity and care for their environment.

By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter

Human beings, possibly above all else, excel at being absorbed in themselves and the minutiae of their lives. It’s a habit I’ve worked hard to ensure doesn’t become instilled in my daughter, and not just because I’ve always preferred national parks over theme parks, but so that she understands there is another world beyond the din of our society’s increasingly urban lifestyles.

As part of creating an awareness and appreciation of this world, starting with the wild places near home, we started taking daily nature walks before she could walk. Now, nearly 3 years old, she wouldn’t let me miss one of our field forays even if I wanted to. We go regardless of weather, because there is always something to be seen and learned, even in inclement conditions.

We follow trails left by moose, collect treasures like tiny spruce cones or unusually shaped stones or pick berries and mushrooms when they’re in season (only after I’ve identified them as safe.) All these capture my daughter’s attention, but of all her favorite outdoor activities, few compete with the curiosity she holds for the birds that visit our feeders.

All of it seems to enchant her — from the careful selection of on which branch a chickadee will wait while awaiting its turn to claim a sunflower seed, to the nuances of where a nuthatch chooses to cache its cherished meal and, especially, any new avian arrivals.

A small flock of grosbeaks flew in. Hardly a life-list species for most birders, but its year-round commonness in the boreal forests of Alaska didn’t make the sighting any less spectacular to my daughter.

They’re a beautiful and charismatic bird, quite large and plump for a member of the finch family, and with a stubby bill. The males have a chokecherry-red back, breast and head, even in winter, which is what caught our eyes in a seasonal world of white and various hues of blue. The females are more grayish with a bit of olive coloring to their heads and rumps.

Grosbeaks are tame by wild bird standards, not easily perturbed by human movement, but I still steadied my daughter by placing my hands on her shoulders, since the birds landed mere yards from where we were standing.

We froze, still as statues and silent enough to hear the natural wind chime of the last few dried leaves still clinging to branches above blowing in the gentle breeze. The grosbeaks flitted on the ground around us, sorting still-good seeds from empty hulls under the feeders. Through my palms I felt my daughter’s pulse increase as her wonder-filled heart picked up pace from the exciting spectacle.

Time pooled in the present as we stared, completely in the spell of these birds, until — as toddlers are wont to do — my daughter finally broke the silence to ask a question. At the sound, the birds flushed before the first word completely left her tiny lips. It was an ephemeral experience to witness that she clearly thought about for weeks afterward, as evident by the litany of questions that followed, which I used as teachable moments.

When she wondered aloud where the grosbeaks were in the following days, I asked her questions, not just about the birds themselves, but the world they live in. Why had they been there at that time of day? Where did she think they were before we saw them, and where did they fly next? What were they eating when not at our feeder? Did they have friends and families? Did they have enemies, such as predators?

To be sure, even I didn’t know the answers to some of the questions I posed, but that wasn’t the point. The goal was to stimulate her brain, to get her to think about what she will one day learn to call an ecosystem.

We could have stayed indoors by the warmth of the woodstove, reading books to learn about the world rather than from it. Likely the same folks who don’t get any more specific than lumping everything with wings into “birds,” and everything with bark and trunks into “woods.” But for me, as someone who enjoys identifying a grosbeak as well as noticing it in an isolated stand of cottonwoods mixed into a sea of spruce, it’s my belief that knowing these details adds to the texture and delight of the encounter. And I hope to pass this acknowledgement and appreciation of the nuances of nature on to my daughter.

In the future, she and the rest of her generation will face many complex issues, from climate change to protecting endangered species, shifting food-production methods to feed the ever-growing global population, and myriad more. But the first step to raising adults who believe in stewardship enough to attempt to solve these nature-related problems must first come from encouraging children to be in nature. To think globally, they must first learn to care locally.

Like Henry David Thoreau once said, “The more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core.” I hope my daughter will remember, as an adult, down to her core, the sights of the birds and other creatures she sees daily, remember the sounds of their whistles and warbles, and remember to care about them and protect their wild habitats. Perhaps, one day, she’ll then share her interests and concerns for the natural world with her own children.

Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx. He and Colleen operate Rouges Gallery Kennel.

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Murre dieoff causing concern —  Shorebirds found inland, emaciated

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A murre, found inland in the Kasilof area last week, is one of many seabirds that have been turning up in unusual spots throughout Southcentral Alaska and along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Scientist are uncertain what is causing the strandings.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A murre, found inland in the Kasilof area last week, is one of many seabirds that have been turning up in unusual spots throughout Southcentral Alaska and along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Scientist are uncertain what is causing the strandings.

By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter

Winter isn’t typically a busy time for bird-watching on the Kenai Peninsula, but unusual sightings have put birdwatchers on alert. Common murres are making uncommon appearances around Alaska. The seabirds are showing up inland and in poor condition.

“I got three over the weekend, spread throughout the Beaver Loop area, all at different houses, all thin and not very strong. I lost one, but I’m feeding the other two, trying to get them stronger,” said Marianne Clark, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

The medium-size birds with black heads and backs and white bellies, look like a cross between a loon and a penguin. They have long, thin beaks for feeding on fish in the saltwater where they typically spend their winters. But this year, they’re showing up inland.

“We don’t know a lot at this point, just that there is an influx of them coming in. We took in 20 from Oct. 31 through Nov. 12,” said Katie Middlebrook, an avian rehabilitation coordinator at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.

“Most have come in from Anchorage, Wasilla, Palmer, even one as far as Talkeetna — strange places for murres. You’d usually see them washing ashore in Homer and Seward,” Middlebrook added.

And they have there, as well.

“The Alaska SeaLife Center has received about 25 common murres over the past two weeks, all from the local Seward area. Most of the birds have been found inland, which is not where you would expect to find this type of seabird,” said Tara Riemer, president and CEO of the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Riemer said that the birds have been thin but alert, so after feeding and rehabbing them back to full strength, the center has released several of the birds in appropriate waters nearby.

“We have been doing a brief exam on the birds, but no necropsies. Some of the birds have been screened for avian influenza, but laboratory results will not be available for some time,” she said.

Riemer said that murre numbers are still high.

“Even so, we are keeping in touch with regional and national U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey staff to share observations,” she said.

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Common Ground: Duck disdressed — Don’t let bird brains use long johns against you

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Two widgeon with one shot is a far sight better than the view from a lawn chair.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Two widgeon with one shot is a far sight better than the view from a lawn chair.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

The weather was the worst I’d ever seen it — blue skies and warm enough to get a fall tan. That might be good for the complexion, but not for duck hunting. Even worse than the magnificent weather was the fact that the flats were dry. There weren’t any ponds, and ducks like ponds.

I was on a three-day hunt at a remote duck shack where I was supposed to be wet, cold, miserable and so exhausted by the end of the day that a cracker with butter on it would taste like a New York steak. Instead, I was hanging out on a lawn chair by a tidal slough in my long johns with the overly optimistic hope for a shot at passing ducks.

“This kind of sucks,” I said to my hunting partner. It had been two hours of walking and then two hours of sitting with nary a duck in shooting range.

“Yep,” my hunting partner said.

“I’m going to walk up to the shack and get another snack,” I said. The last time I’d left for a snack, ducks had flown by. It was a phenomenon. Or, if it wasn’t a phenomenon, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that the ducks were waiting around the bend laughing at me.

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Better birding in the Card —  Wildfire should improve habitat for Skilak wildlife

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. While in the short term, some animals many have succumbed to the Card Street Fire that burned in portions of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge this spring, in the long run many species, such as this ruby-crowned kinglet seen from the Hidden Creek Trail, will benefit from the new foliage that will return, according to biologist Todd Eskelin.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. While in the short term, some animals many have succumbed to the Card Street Fire that burned in portions of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge this spring, in the long run many species, such as this ruby-crowned kinglet seen from the Hidden Creek Trail, will benefit from the new foliage that will return, according to biologist Todd Eskelin.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

The smoke has dissipated and the ash is starting to cool on the nearly 8,000-acre Card Street Fire that scorched its way east from Sterling into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Among the acreage burned is a portion of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area. The immediate concern when wildfires strike so close to human habitation is for people and their homes. But as that threat wanes, another concern rises — how does the blaze affect the animals that make those woods their home?

“It’s a question people always ask after a fire, but fire is a natural component of the landscape here, and while in the short run a few animals were undoubtedly lost, in the long run it will reshape the environment to benefit wildlife,” said Todd Eskelin, a biologist with the refuge and its resource adviser during and following the fire.

While last year five wolf pups made headlines when pulled from their smoldering den following the Funny River Fire, Eskelin said that most of the larger species — wolves, bears and moose —seem to have fared well while fleeing the Card Street Burn.

“We didn’t have a massive, several-mile-long wall of fire that moved quickly consuming everything in its path. There were times when this fire grew rapidly, but it still burned in patches and around swamps, muskegs, boggy areas and ponds, and animals are pretty adept at using these areas and doing what they have to do to survive,” he said.

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Common Ground: Flighty dating habits of the willow ptarmigan

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Willow ptarmigan can play hard to get during mating season. But don’t ptake it ptersonally.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Willow ptarmigan can play hard to get during mating season. But don’t ptake it ptersonally.

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

My recent experience volunteering for a spring ptarmigan survey has given me cause to consider the dating habits of these territorial creatures. I am constantly asked questions about what I have learned. Here are the most common questions and answers:

  • Why do male ptarmigan wait up to a week to call after a great date?

If this occurs during mating season, the reason is often because the female is in the territory of another male. He may have been chased off by another territorial male or is busy defending his own area. Ptarmigan are not afraid to appear pushy or overeager, so it is a mistake to assume he is not interested. They are also not worried about commitment, as they are comfortable with infidelity, and believe that the females should look on with interest should they approach another female. The grass may be greener on the other side, but only if that grass is not within the boundary of another territorial male.

  • Why do male ptarmigan make plans to “talk later” and then never follow up?

Male ptarmigan are known to “spin out” on their female counterparts. It doesn’t mean they are ambivalent. It does not mean they are not ready to form a pair relationship. Of the three ptarmigan species (rock, willow and white tail), the willow ptarmigan is the least likely to play games. If he planned to talk later, he meant it. He just doesn’t have the brain capacity to tell time. Their memory is episodic at best, and it’s not clear whether they know how much time has passed.

  • Why does he always talk so much about his accomplishments and how important he is?

Male willow ptarmigan develop a beautiful cape of chestnut red feathers beginning in May. The hens are not as good-looking. Male ptarmigan know that the truth hurts and they would rather say something nice (about themselves) than say something unkind about the less-striking physique and coloring of the hen in comparison. He also believes that his social status and financial portfolio are features that will make him more attractive to women.

  • Why won’t he introduce me to his family?

The reproductive urge makes male ptarmigan less tolerant of each other. They will help care for their chicks and may even take over all family responsibilities if the hen is killed. But they are not that into their parents. There’s a fable from the Jewish tradition that expresses the way love works for the ptarmigan rather well, “The love of the parents goes to their children; the love of these children goes to their children.” The male ptarmigan doesn’t introduce hens to his family either because they might be dead or he forgot about them.

Male ptarmigan territorial activity is greatest at dusk and dawn, much like the common American male human. Once they establish a territory, they are not likely to change their area, making them poor candidates for long-distance relationships. They will often sit within sight of another male and the two will stare across their mutual boundary much like a pair of grumpy old men. It’s a wonder the female ptarmigan have any interest in them at all. I’m not trying to make excuses for their behavior, I’m just glad I never have to date one.

Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing. She can be reached at christineemal@hotmail.com. For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.

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View from Out West — Name that plume — Song identification can be for the birds

Photos by Clark Fair. Yvonne Leutwyler and Nathan Coutsoubos watch seabirds on a University of Alaska “Birds of Alaska” trip to Cape Constantine near Dillingham recently.

Photos by Clark Fair. Yvonne Leutwyler and Nathan Coutsoubos watch seabirds on a University of Alaska “Birds of Alaska” trip to Cape Constantine near Dillingham recently.

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

It may be unfair of me to say, but, as of now, I find trying to learn the identities of birds by their songs disturbingly akin to trying to learn French in college by closing my textbook and just listening to my instructor.

I’m trying, damn it, but it’s hard. And I don’t want to give up, as I did with French.

In the 1980s at the University of Montana, after two and a half years of German and one year of Spanish — two languages that sound the way they look — I decided to tackle French. In the first class, our instructor told us to put away our “livre de langue française” and simply listen. At that point, she ceased speaking English and spoke only French. She pointed to herself and said, “Professeur.” We dutifully echoed her word. Then: “Bonjour, classe!” That was an easy one. We responded with a chorus of, “Bonjour, professeur!” But each subsequent sentence or expression grew increasingly complex, and the more visual learners among us became increasingly perplexed learners.

I dropped the class after only one term.

Flash forward more than 30 years. I’m in Dillingham in mid-May, I’m with friends on a chilly early morning “bird walk” — my very first — and I’m doing my darnedest to follow the chorus of whistles and cheeps and tweets and chirrups that some of my companions are identifying faster than I can process the French words for “totally confused.” (That’s totalement confus, by the way.)

I realize, of course, the near necessity of learning the musicality of birds, particularly the LBBs (“little brown birds”) that frequent the forests and tundra and waterways of Alaska. To begin with, with the exception of robins and thrushes, most of the LBBs have a body the size of a golf ball, so they’re tough to see well unless the light is perfect or they happen to land on a branch next to one’s face. They also don’t stand still long — they dart, they flit and they zip. The moment I’d raise my binoculars for a closer view, they’d be gone. They also prefer deep cover — the branches of spruce trees, for instance, or tall grass or thick brush — so their sounds can appear directionless, almost coming out of nowhere.

So learning birdsongs is the best alternative. If one can learn their individual tunes, one can nail down the species — even if, like the French words in my textbook I wasn’t allowed to use, one never sees the actual bird at all.

HOWEVER, confounding the whole process is the fact that nobody seems to have informed these LBBs that it’s not polite for all of them to talk at the same time.

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