For the birds

Annual count reveals patterns, trends


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A flock of Bohemian waxwings spreads out across the sky during the 2013 Eagle River Bird Count on Dec. 29. The flock included more than 150 birds.

CINTHIA RITCHIE

It’s early Sunday morning and I’m sitting in the front of an SUV, creeping around Eagle River with a team of people I’ve just met: Tracy Lohman and her son, Lucas, 11, and his teacher, Kelsey Chalker, all who have driven in from Anchorage.

We’re part of the Eagle River Christmas Bird Count held Dec. 29, 2013, and we have one goal: To see and count as many birds as possible.

The event is part of the Audubon Society’s annual count and includes thousands of participants across the country. The Anchorage count took place Dec. 14, 2013.

According to Asta Spurgis, Eagle River Nature Center director, the event encourages citizenship science.

“It’s become not only a fun time for birders but also emphasizes a broader sense of our birding community,” she said.

Unusual sightings are sometimes recorded.

Lucas is a newbie birder. He keeps a life list of birds and carries binoculars around. Whenever he sees the shadow of a bird, he whips them out and takes a peek.

“I’m looking for what I’ve never seen before,” he said.

He tells me this as we drive to our first stop, the Dumpster behind Mike’s Quality Meat, off Business Blvd. It’s still early, the sun not fully up. We traipse behind the building and quietly approach the Dumpster, where we discover a scattered flock of ravens, a few magpies and, the prize, two bald eagles perched jauntily in a tree behind Homestead Dental Clinic.

After we marvel and stare, we pile back in the vehicle and head up Eagle River Road to a subdivision beyond Walmart.

Chalker, a serious birder with 30 years of experience, explains why she loves birding.

“You forget about everything else,” she said. “It shuts out everything and you’re in the present, enjoying the birds and their beauty.”

Suddenly, Lucas yells out, “Slow down, slow down.”

Lohman stops the vehicle and we peer out the windows at four black-billed magpies.

We start to drive away a few minutes later when Chalker shouts, “Oh my, look, you guys. Holy Toledo.”

We look up and see another prize: A flock of Bohemian Waxwings flitting from tree to tree. There are at least 150, maybe 200 birds.

We rush out of the car and stand beneath them as they soar and fly two layers deep. I throw back my head and for one brief moment I wonder how it must have once been long ago, when birds filled the sky, when such flocks were commonplace.

 

ER Valley birds

Birder Pete Jeskie and his wife, Susan, saw more than 200 eagles at the Anchorage Landfill out by Hiland Road during this year’s count.

That, he said, is no big deal: Last year, they recorded more than 300.

Jeskie has been participating in the Eagle River bird count for 15 years.

He first became interested in birds as a child, when he fed chickadees out of his hand.

“I admire birds,” he said. “They can do something I can’t, which is fly.”

He and his wife hit the landfill right after sunrise, as a fog was peeling off the inlet.

Eagles can typically be found perching in the trees. This year, because of snow-clogged branches, they were harder to spot.

Still, they recorded 218 mature and 32 immature bald eagles, along with 52 ravens and six magpies.

Then, the Jeskies moved out toward the Eagle River Valley, where they glimpsed chickadees, more magpies, grosbeaks, stellar jays and — the prize — a grey jay out toward Mile nine of Eagle River Road.

The rarest bird Jeskies seen in Alaska is a red-wing blackbird out in Juneau.

“I watched it for a good hour, it was along the shoreline,” Pete said.

 

Final tally

According to Eagle River Christmas Bird Count coordinator Liza Sanden, results fluctuate from year to year. Weather is often a factor.

“With the amount of snow in the trees, it was hard to see (this year),” she said. “But, it’s better than birding in a snowstorm.”

This year was also the first since 1983 that no mallard ducks or waterfowl were reported.

Bald eagle counts were also down from a peak two years ago. Sanden attributes this to more effective eagle management over at the Anchorage landfill.

Two years ago, 555 eagles were counted, the majority around the dump.

“This year, numbers at the dump were down, but I was struck by how few were seen in town and in Fort Richardson,” Sanden said.

Most likely, this points to populations returning to more natural levels.

The past 20 years has also seen more backyard bird feeders, which contributes to more bird sightings.

“Locally, we have more birds staying over the winter, such as the American robin,” Sanden said.

Misidentification during the count isn’t routine but does occur.

Rare species reports require photo and note back-ups, and sighters are interviewed by more experienced birders for verification purposes.

But participating in the bird count is more than simply looking for birds. It’s a fellowship of like-minded people coming together to talk about a passion many don’t share.

Or, as Spurgis said, “It’s a statement that we’re all still interested in birds.”

 

Contact Star reporter Cinthia Ritchie at 694-2727 or cinthia.ritchie@alaskastar.com.

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