The last weekend in February, I joined an intrepid group from the Anchorage Audubon Society on a mission to go birding in Seward, despite a blizzard warning. The high-profile targets were two Eurasian species that had wandered far off course. What we didn’t count on was witnessing the first hints of spring.
The group decided to search for the two target birds first. The last known location, courtesy of Seward birders Joe Staab and Carol Griswold, was a backyard feeder. Armed with surveillance equipment, including spotting scopes and binoculars, we set up down the block, far enough away we hoped so as not to spook our suspects.
A hundred or more redpolls, with their telltale brilliant red caps, fluttered and chirped around the feeders, a regular buzz of commuter traffic. Mixed in were tens of pine siskins, looking like someone used a yellow highlighter on their brown wings and tails. A handful of juncos hopped on the ground, joined by one or two white-crowned sparrows. At least half a dozen varied thrushes cruised the ground level. Periodically a Steller’s jay swooped in and momentarily broke up the party, sending even the thrushes diving for cover.
As we waited for the local celebrities to show, we heard something unexpected. Along with their regular conversation of quiet “chup” calls, the varied thrushes kept trying out quiet versions of their ringing springtime song, as if rehearsing. Then, high up in a tree, the buzzy song of a white-crowned sparrow trickled out, sounding a little rusty and off-key. As if disapproving of these first stirrings of spring, snow started falling in big, fat flakes.
Staab and Griswold said the numbers of varied thrushes and white-crowned sparrows are unusually high this year. Perhaps rubbing shoulders with so many potential rivals has the males feeling the need to strut their stuff already.
Suddenly, someone shouted “There’s the brambling!”
Finally, one of our targets!
The male brambling that hopped into the clearing under the feeders was the size of a junco and almost resembled one, with a grayish-brown head and back and a white belly; but the disguise was foiled by the bold splash of rusty orange across its chest spilling onto its shoulders.
At least four bramblings infiltrated Seward this winter. Bramblings normally live throughout Asia and Europe in boreal or temperate forest and sometimes farmland. So perhaps the forested slopes of Seward remind them of home. A type of finch, they wander widely from year to year, depending on seed crops. With four reported in Seward, a couple in Homer, and about half a dozen in Kodiak this winter, you have to wonder if the menu at home offered slim pickings.
With one foreign emissary present, everyone was on full alert for the other visitor.
Minutes ticked by.
The snow started falling in pingpong-ball-sized clumps. The varied thrushes squabbled, giants among the daintier redpolls. A downy woodpecker zipped onto a hanging feeder, flashing the vivid red patch on the back of its head.
“Look, behind the woodpecker!” someone called.
In the shadowy branches behind the black-and-white woodpecker, the shape of a smaller bird materialized. With a peach chest and eyebrow and a dashing black mask, the Siberian accentor finally made its entrance. It surveyed the scene briefly, dropped to the ground to pick up a few seeds, then vanished into the branches. After gathering courage, it treated us to a longer view.
The Siberian accentor has a narrower range than the brambling, living in northern Siberia and wintering in eastern Asia. The species favors forest and scrubland in mountainous places, so even though it somehow overshot its wintering destination, it seemed to be comfortable in Seward.
Now that the celebrities had put in their cameos, the field trip moved on to enjoy other winter birds. With easy overlooks of the bay and an array of spotting scopes, we set out to see what the sea had to offer.
The bold black-and-white patterns of male Barrow’s and common goldeneyes flashed among the waves in a couple of loose flocks. A trio of common goldeneye males drifted near a brown female. Without warning, one threw his head back until it touched his shoulders, left it there for a few beats, then straightened up like he’d had a sudden fit of ‘80s dance moves. A few minutes later, one of the other males did the same. Even as the snow drifted onto their backs, these drakes were trying to interest the female in a little springtime romance, but even through a spotting scope you could tell she was supremely indifferent — for now.
Scanning the light posts by the fish processing plant, we saw the large, gray-winged silhouettes of glaucous-winged gulls perched on top. Griswold said nearly 1,000 gulls remain in the bay all winter near the mouth of the Resurrection River, but few visit town unless the fish processor starts up.
This made me wonder, what other birds, rare or not, do we just not see?
There were a few mysterious absences on the water. Staab said you can usually find the bright white of long-tailed ducks, but this year he hadn’t seen any. There didn’t seem to be many loons or grebes, of any species, this year either. We spotted only two common murres, nowhere near the usual numbers.
Last year, both local guides explained, there were crowds of murres, but they weren’t healthy. Listless and thin, sometimes sitting up on the docks, they seemed to be starving. Eagles took advantage of the bounty and fed well, leading to a productive nesting season for them. It’s a mystery why the murres weren’t finding food, maybe something as simple as a change in underwater temperature at the depth they normally feed. No one really knew.
The snow abruptly stopped, and skies opened to reveal dramatic lighting on the snowy shoulders of the mountains surrounding Resurrection Bay. The sun highlighted the colorful winter coats and hats of our field trip crew, but I continued to think about the goldeneyes starting their dance, and the hesitant, half-remembered songs of the sparrows and thrushes, signals we’ve reached the crossroads of winter and spring.
Soon, the rare visitors will grow restless and fly to the skies of another continent. For this reason, I was glad we found them this day.
There will be more daylight tomorrow than today, and the actions of birds remind us that even in the teeth of a spring snowstorm, an Alaska winter doesn’t last forever.
Thanks to Aaron Bowman, of Anchorage Audubon, for organizing the trip, and to Carol Griswold and Joe Staab for showing us around Seward and sharing their wealth of local bird knowledge.
• Beth Peluso is a freelance writer and illustrator and avid birder. She enjoys spying on wildlife across Alaska.