Birders eye the sky for annual Christmas count

Thursday, January 5, 2017 - 14:57
Eagle-eyed birders spot 30 species
  • A chickadee takes flight. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • Magpie (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

There’s a lot more to bird watching than meets the eye.

Take finance, for example.

“The economy has a big effect,” on bird numbers, said John Abrams, a longtime Eagle River birder and one of a couple dozen volunteers who turned out for the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count on New Year’s Day.

When the economy is down, birders say they see fewer birds in winter. Their hunch is that when people have less money to spend, one of the first places they save is on things like birdseed and suet.

“It’s discretionary spending,” said Liza Sanden, who has coordinated the local component of the national event for the past decade.

Food is in short supply in winter, so when it’s especially cold, many species tend to hang around bird feeders almost exclusively.

“They’ll stay close to really reliable food sources,” Sanden said.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, more than 100 birds overwinter in coastal parts of southern Alaska. This year, 25 local counters spotted 30 species. Last year, 24 participants spotted 22 different kinds of birds.

The Eagle River count is held annually in an area that encompasses a 7-mile radius centered around the Glenn/Old Glenn interchange. Birders either drive around the area in their cars, walk in the woods or simply watch their feeders.

The numbers will be sent along to the Audubon Society, which keeps a national database of all counts nationally. The group touts the annual event as “the nation’s longest-running citizen science bird project.” This year’s count was the 117th annual, with birders counting species and numbers of birds in their areas between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.

Among the most commonly seen birds in the Eagle River area were common redpolls (653), black-capped chickadees (526), pine grosbeaks (211), bald eagles (176), black-billed magpies (141) and ravens (134). Sometimes thousands of Bohemian waxwings are spotted, though counters this year reported a few hundred; the final numbers showed 310 of the small flocking birds.

One type of bird that seemed more prevalent than usual were the kinglets, of which both the red-crowned and golden-crowned varieties were spotted.

“That’s going to be the highlight is the return of the kinglet,” Sanden said.

No ruby-crowned and just three golden-crowned kinglets were seen last year.

Bald eagle numbers rebounded this year after a sharp drop-off in last year’s count. Sanden speculated low numbers last year may have been due to a massive common murre die-off across Southcentral last winter, which could have provided the opportunistic scavengers an even easier food source than their normal dining spot: the Anchorage landfill, where virtually all of this year’s eagles were seen.

Eagle River might not seem like a birding hot spot, but it’s actually the tropics for some species of birds that spend their winters here. One hard-to-spot bird seen in the area this year was the gray-crowned rosy finch. Although not particularly uncommon, the bird’s habitat is very hard to reach. In a description at, the medium-sized brown bird is described as “a songbird of extreme environments.” Usually the best way to spot one is to take an expensive trip to a remote location like the Aleutian Islands.

“That’s a bird people would fly here from the Lower 48 to see,” Sanden said.

Birders said the best way to spot birds this time of year is to hang around neighborhoods with lots of trees. The time of day is also important.

“As soon as it’s light some birds start being active,” said Sue Jeskie, who participated in this year’s count with her husband, Pete.

The counts can be used to compare bird numbers and abundance from year to year. One trend birders have seen locally has been an increase in the number of robins in the winter. What used to be a spring- and summer-only bird has recently started sticking around through the cold months.

“Fifteen years ago we had no winter robins,” said Sanden, who noted the first specimes of the red-breasted birds weren’t observed in Eagle River until 1993. “Now we have robins every year.”

The weather for this year’s count was cold and clear, but that didn’t deter the counters, many of whom have been participating in the event for more years than they can remember. That group includes Abrams, who said he’s “probably missed one year since 1980.”

“I just like birds,” he said.

For more information on the annual bird count, visit, where local count numbers and those from other parts of Alaska and the U.S. can be found once they’re compiled.
Sanden said the society also conducts a President’s Day count in February, which individuals can sign up for online at the group’s website,

2016-17 Eagle River Audubon Christmas Bird Count
Jan. 1, 2017

Common redpoll: 653
Black-capped chickadee: 526
Bohemian waxwing: 310
Pine Grosbeak: 211
Bald Eagle: 176
Black-billed magpie: 141
Common raven: 134
Pine siskin: 45
White-winged crossbill: 39
Boreal chickadee: 37
Rock dove: 24
Downy woodpecker: 15
Gray jay: 13
Red-breasted nuthatch: 11
Hairy woodpecker: 9
Steller’s Jay: 8
Golden-crowned kinglet: 8
American robin: 8
White-tailed ptarmigan: 3
Great horned owl: 2
Brown creeper: 2
American dipper: 2
Spruce grouse: 1
Rock ptarmigan: 1
Ruby-crowned kinglet: 1
Northern shrike: 1
Gray-crowned rosy finch: CW
Northern goshawk: CW
Willow ptarmigan: CW

Note: CW denotes birds seen during the counting week but not on the actual day of the count.

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