By Jenny Neyman
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.