PUBLISHED: 10:55 AM on Tuesday, November 1, 2005
Winter Birding
Southeast Adventures

Photo courtesy of Barb Turley
  Rock Ptarmigan turn white in the winter except for a little black in the tail and a black line between their beak and eyes.
When the end of September arrives and the last of the cruise ships departs, the residents of many of the Southeast Alaska towns breath a sign of relief. For those who notice, there is also a shift in the bird population this time of year. Many of the species have migrated south. For other species, Southeast Alaska is south. For example, in the summer we're not likely to see any grebes. In the fall, winter and early spring Red-necked Grebes and Horned Grebes are fairly common. In Juneau, there are no magpies at all in the summer. About the middle of September we start seeing them.

Perhaps because I grew up in a family with a father who'd written his master's thesis about the sparrow-like birds of Utah, and a mother who worked for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, it's no wonder that I've been watching birds all my life. (He was in New England doing lectures on the endangered Trumpeter Swans when they met.)

One of the changes we see in the winter is that ptarmigans turn white. In general, the ptarmigans live above tree line in the spring, summer and fall, but winter sometimes brings them right down onto the cliffs on the glacier-side of Mendenhall Lake. For some reason, there is a resident population of ptarmigan at sea level on Lincoln Island. On a November deer-hunting trip there once, we didn't get any deer, but did bring home a little meat. My husband, Kim, shot a ptarmigan. He was able to cut its throat with the bullet so that hardly a feather was ruffled and no meat was damaged. I was really pleased to get to examine a ptarmigan. A lot more of this one's feathers had turned white than those we saw a month previously in early October, though it still did have some brown on the back. Its chicken-like feet were densely covered with short feathers right down to the end of each toe. In addition to helping keep the feet warm, these feathers on the toes act as snowshoes. With the feathers removed, it was about the same size as the game hens that are sold in the grocery store. The whole family agreed that it tasted very good.

Photo courtesy of Barb Turley
  Only one winter out of the 21 that we've lived in Juneau have the beautiful Pine Grosbeaks frequented our backyard feeder. This flock stayed around for several months.
Some species of owls are in Southeast year-round, but are a bit easier to detect in late winter. The Great Horned Owl becomes more vocal then. On one memorable February day, when Kim and I were running on Skaters Cabin Road in the early morning darkness we heard two different species of owls. We knew that one was a great horned owl, but it took listening to tapes of owl calls to decide that the unfamiliar one was a Western Screech Owl. These small owls are uncommon in Alaska. It was a life bird for us. The identification of its voice was positive. (Not only do we watch birds, we make a list of what we see. In birder's jargon, a "life bird" is a bird that you've never seen before.)

With late fall's cold and drizzly days, there are still opportunities to enjoy looking at birds. One November day, when the rain had turned our snow to cold slush, unsuitable for hiking or skiing, we chose to spend our Saturday recreation time on the water. Kim and I took a canoe out from the Auke Bay ferry terminal to have a look at the near-by rocky islands. We were pleased to identify nine species of birds during the couple of hours that we were out. Not counted in that total are several unidentified gulls and ducks. We were most impressed by a flock of about 10 Long-tailed Ducks. Though we usually see a few of this species every year, they are always uncommon. I've never seen so many at one time before. With their nearly white heads and mostly white backs, they are unlike any other duck in appearance. In the summer, the males are quite differently marked and are furthered distinguished by a long black plume in the tail that is held nearly vertically as they sit on the water.

An enjoyable winter birding experience, both for those with a casual interest in birds, and the hard-core birders, is the Audubon Christmas Bird Count that takes place in many of the Southeast Alaska communities. All over the United States, this bird count is done within a two-week period in late December. Over time, this has come to be a large body of valuable data on the increase or decline of species of birds in all parts of the country. As well as being an opportunity to contribute to scientific knowledge, for birding enthusiasts like us, it's just plain fun and a great chance to go out with some like-minded people. Here in Juneau we are fortunate to have some real birding experts. Among the choices of trip leaders to go with was Bob Armstrong, the author of Guide to the Birds of Alaska, which is the Alaska field guide. Since we'd gone with his group two years previously, we chose this time to go with another super birder - the late Pete Islieb. By profession, he was a birding trip leader on the Aleutian Islands for a national tour company. The weather was poor that Saturday. The wind along the ocean made it necessary to be a very dedicated birder to spend very long standing by the ocean. With binoculars or spotting scopes we were trying to count the number of individuals and species of the little black dots that were loons, scoters, golden eye, scaups, and other kinds of ducks bobbing about on the waves. Inland, snowfall and strong winds all morning kept most small birds hidden in the thick trees. Pete was able to lead us to several unusual birds such as Wilson's Snipe and Hooded Merganser. Our most outstanding find of the day, by far, was a Northern Pygmy Owl. This seven inch tall, miniature owl sat in plain view while the whole group got a good look at it. Although it is smaller than a robin, its diet consists of other birds such as chickadees and juncos. For this reason, they are sometimes seen in the vicinity of backyard feeders, but they are by no means common.

Just like many people, we have bird feeders in our back yard. Stellar Jays, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Dark-eyed Juncos are our standard visitors, but over time, we've seen many others. One fall day, in the late afternoon, I got a call at work from a high school-aged daughter. When the receptionist told her that I was in a meeting, Mariann said, "tell her there's a Brown Creeper on the back porch!" I'm not sure just what the receptionist thought a Brown Creeper was, but I don't believe she had a bird in mind. She interrupted the meeting to give me the message and ask me if I needed to hurry home. I would certainly have liked to hurry home and see this uncommon little bird, but I assured her that I didn't need to. My kids would be fine.

To keep up with interesting bird sightings in Southeast Alaska, and particularly in Juneau, go to group/eaglechat/ on the Internet.