Some birds are home for Christmas, and some seem to be making Southeast Alaska a new home - at least for now.
Some birds home for Christmas; some far from it 122414 OUTDOORS 1 Capital City Weekly Some birds are home for Christmas, and some seem to be making Southeast Alaska a new home - at least for now.

A raft of surf scoters floats offshore in Southeast Alaska.

This year's annual Christmas Bird count is underway, giving local birders and experts a chance to take stock of the region's winter population. Courtesy photo.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Story last updated at 12/24/2014 - 1:07 pm

Some birds home for Christmas; some far from it

Some birds are home for Christmas, and some seem to be making Southeast Alaska a new home - at least for now.

The Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, which provides a way for birders to document trends across the country, has found unusual birds in several Southeast communities this year. Juneau birders saw a long-eared owl - a bird never before seen on any Christmas bird count in Alaska - on the Mendenhall wetlands.

In Ketchikan, birders found a mountain bluebird - a bird the color of the sunlit sky - fluttering around the cemetery; those are rare in Alaska and even rarer away from the mainland.

In Skagway, birders saw a pair of gyrfalcons.

Gustavus saw record numbers of many species, including more than double its previous record of pine siskins, a species many communities said is extremely common this year.

In Southeast Alaska overall, winter sightings of Anna's Hummingbirds seem to be much more common they used to be, organizers said.

On Christmas Bird Count day, volunteers scour set areas of their community, taking photos when they can, observing, and tallying each bird they see. They also observe birds in a more informal capacity for the three days on either side of what is known as "count day."

Juneau and Gustavus were the first Southeast communities to hold their bird counts this year; Ketchikan, Skagway, Thorne Bay and Craig-Klawock held theirs a week later and are still tallying. All the results are still preliminary.


Juneau birder Deanna Mac Phail managed to get a picture of the long-eared owl, something Juneau organizer Mark Schwan called "probably the biggest deal on the count."

While new arrivals are exciting, some other frequently seen species were less visible than normal. Surf scoters were at an all-time low in Juneau, Schwan said. Birders counted 149; the most ever seen was 2,108. Through last year, Juneau's count of surf scoters averages around 955.

The number of eagles, ravens, crows and glaucous-winged gulls was down, but Schwan attributes that to the fact that the dump was closed on Sunday, when birders counted.

Juneau birders also saw a Harlan's red-tail hawk, only seen on one other count, an American kestrel, and 553 pine siskins, a species Schwan said comes and goes.

In total, Juneau birders counted 7,199 birds - the lowest number of total birds for almost 30 years, though the number of volunteers has remained steady in recent times.

"Most of our count comes from a few waterfowl species," Schwan said. "And our gulls make up a large preponderance of the total." He's not sure about the low numbers of water birds, but thinks mild weather might have encouraged them to disperse.


The Glacier Bay Christmas Bird Count found 65 species, one more than its 20-year average of 64. Birders found an additional 17 species during count week, for a new count record of 82 species, said organizer Nat Drumheller. Its previous record was 78 species in 2007.

He attributes the increase to the mild fall, which has also meant fewer birds seen at feeders.

"In addition, a big spruce cone crop brought in large numbers of White-winged Crossbills, Red Crossbills, and Pine Siskins," he wrote.

Gustavus recorded a record number of pine siskins - 1,600, more than double 1986's previous high of 720.

Count day offered some challenges, Drumheller wrote, with wind, rain, and "tough lighting for birding."

This year, Gustavus also had record-high counts of brants, pacific loons, horned grebes, red-necked grebes, Eurasian collared doves, Steller's jays and varied thrush, Drumheller wrote.

The community found two species for the first time: Lincoln's sparrow and northern saw-whet owl.

"A count of 27 Great Blue Herons (at the fuel dock at Bartlett Cove) was not only a record high count for our Christmas Bird Count; it was an all-time record for Glacier Bay/Gustavus," he wrote.

Perhaps Juneau's surf scoters are discovering their love for Gustavus: birders in Gustavus counted 1,288 of them, compared to last year's count of 476. This year, birders also saw 1,000 scoters whose species was unclear and 1,017 white-winged scoters, their second-highest count ever. The highest was 2,404 in 1989, Drumheller said.


Skagway birders recorded an average number of species - 33 on count day, with an additional two on count week, said Elaine Furbish of the Skagway Bird Club.

"It was rather quiet on the water," she wrote.

Birders saw common murres, marbled murrelets, common redpolls, bohemian waxwings, pine siskins, and the more unusual sharp-shinned hawk and a pair of gyrfalcons.


The mountain bluebird at the Ketchikan cemetery - where it's still spending its time - is the first recorded in Ketchikan in the winter or during the Christmas bird count, said organizer Andy Piston.

He wrote that the birds are "very rare on the islands and further away from the mainland you get."

They also saw three evening grosbeaks, which have been spending time at John and Helen West's house for more than a month, he said.

"This species is very rare in Alaska and was definitely a highlight of the count," he said.

Anna's Hummingbirds seem to be becoming more regular; they counted at least three in Ketchikan and have noticed more than 10 along the road system, he said.

They also saw a swamp sparrow - a rare species - and two Brandt's Cormorants. Ketchikan is the only place those cormorants are seen with regularity in the winter, Piston wrote.

Ketchikan has averaged about 67 species on count day, with an additional three or four on count week, since 2000, Piston said.

They see about 5,400 total birds.

Though the count wasn't yet complete at press time, he thinks they'll likely see close to the average number of species and a lower than average number of birds.


Organizer Victoria Houser said the weather on count day, Dec. 20, impeded her area's bird count. "It was windy, rainy and the light was low, making it very hard to see birds, especially sea birds. Our tough birders persevered, however, and we had some exciting song bird sightings," she wrote.

In keeping with the pine siskin trend, birders saw "several large flocks of over 50 Pine Siskins, loudly flitting about in the tops of trees," she wrote. She saw seven trumpeter swans at Big Salt Inlet, and others saw hooded mergansers, buffleheads, greater scaup, mallards and common mergansers, she said.

Wildlife biologist Melissa Cady said they also saw golden-crowned kinglets up close. "One of our favorite sightings was of a pair of Hooded Mergansers taking shelter from the storm at False Island. The pair were keeping a low profile out of the wind, despite their flawless plumage and the male's boldly patterned crest," she wrote.

Craig and Klawock are still tallying results.

Thorne Bay

Thorne Bay counted 29 species on count day, said organizer Molly Simonson.

"The general thought was there were significantly fewer birds counted than usual," she wrote. "We hit woodland, river/freshwater, estuary/tidal flats, and beach areas in the count. You'll note that the large fast-flying flocks of pine siskins account for the majority of our numbers."

A high tide shortly before midday may have made birding along the shore more difficult, she said, and the persistent rain on count day "would have kept a lot of the woodland species like songbirds more subdued and quiet."

"It was mentioned to me that our highly variable December weather from year to year makes trends more difficult to detect, because we could easily have solid snow pack or be 50 degrees and sunny with some good fresh vegetation growth," Simonson wrote. "It's so unpredictable here with that that it certainly (a)ffects some of the species who are present here."


It's the 115th year for the Christmas Bird Count across the country.

Other counts in Southeast Alaska are Haines on Dec. 27, Tenakee Springs on Dec. 28, and Wrangell and Sitka on Jan. 4.