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Christmas bird count contains surprises

Mountain bluebird, emperor goose among unusual state guests

Posted: Sunday, January 03, 2010

HOMER - This year's Christmas bird count revealed two distinguished visitors making rare appearances around Kachemak Bay. A mountain bluebird was found feasting on ash berries out East End Road, while an emperor goose hung out with crows along the Homer Spit.

Those, along with 59 other bird species were counted Dec. 19 amid blowing snow by 20-25 bird loyalists.

"The mountain bluebird has been around since mid November, probably a female," said Lani Raymond with Kachemak Bay Birders. "She was over by the Mormon Church and the Church of Christ, and has been all by herself. She isn't really blue, so it took an experienced birder to ID it initially."

The bluebirds are known to nest in the Tanana Valley, but this might be first on Kenai Peninsula, Raymond said.

The emperor goose was seen on the Spit, on the rocks near Freight Dock Road. Other interesting birds included Townsends Solitaire, the Northern Goshawk, the sharp-shinned hawk, the northern Waw-Whet owl, common and Stellers eiders, cedar and Bohemian Waxwings, Lincoln's and American Tree Sparrows, the Brown creeper, winter wren, Golden-Crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush, plus the other expected "usual suspects."

"We had a cloudy day with not much good light until almost 10 a.m., and about 1:30 it started snowing and blowing," Raymond said. "If we had a clear day the whole day, it would give you another couple of hours of functional birding. We scatter spotters out, making a circle with the center in Mud Bay, about a 7.5-mile radius."

The birders can always use more pairs of eyes. Particularly, Raymond said the group would like to draw out more young people.

Local artist and avid birder Gary Lyons reported that the emperor goose was quite a crowd pleaser. He was hanging out with a flock of crows, and unlike some elusive birds, contentedly sat long enough to have his portrait snapped.

"Generally you see just its tail this fleeting, kind of hard-to-grasp thing," Lyons said. "But the goose was just as big as life sitting there with a flock of crows. Its probably still here."

Lyons said this is the first year the emperor goose has been seen in the Christmas count.

"You might say we got our Christmas goose this year," he added.

The goose didn't appear to have any injuries that could have waylaid it out of its home region.

"It looks just beautiful, and obviously doesn't have a disability," Lyons said. "We saw it again in a white-out, blasting by in a storm."

Emperor geese have been seen rarely in these parts. Large groups of emperors winter on Kodiak Island. Raymond recalled that three or four years ago, a pair appeared in early January and hung around for a little while. One pair were amicable enough to return for the annual Shorebird Festival.

"They like to be on the beach," Raymond said.

Birders at home also call in their feeder sightings during the annual Christmas Bird Count, which has been going on continuously in Homer since 1972. Dave Erikson, organizing this year's count, has been involved for 33 years. The bird count idea originated in 1900 to counter another event going on at Christmas time where hunters went out to see how many birds they could shoot in one day. "They were trying to change a tradition called the Christmas side hunt. They wanted to see how many they could count in one day," Erikson said.

From a small collection of 25 places, now there are 1,600 places, of which Homer is one.

The first Christmas bird count was in 1966 in Homer, organized by Mary Miller from Kasiloff. It was then intermittent until the early 1970s, recalled Erikson, a wildlife biologist who was then a college student. He now works for URS Corp., on environmental impact statements, and helps keep the log of all the birds counted in Homer, which is available at www.audobon.org

Through the years, Erikson has seen a lot of bird fluctuations. Robins, for example, are increasingly wintering over.

"Thirty years ago, that would have been rare. This year, we counted up to 330," he said. The reason could be a warming trend, and the more birds that successfully winter here are likely to do it again with their offspring. The ornamental berry producing trees, mountain ash, also are a likely draw, he said.

There is a lower number of sea ducks in the Bay than normal, however. The count has produced fewer waxed scoters, surf scoters and whited winged scoters through the years, Erikson said. This year's count recorded only two white winged scoters. "Sea ducks were down in the bay before the count. The more ice there is that covers the shallow feeding habitat, the harder it is for them to feed. This could be a weather-related factor," he said.

Crows are up; that nuisance species is counted at around 700. Ravens were counted at around 362. Eagles on the Homer Spit is the same number as last year, around 168.

This year's recording of a mountain blue bird is significant as the most distinguished visitor.

"We've had unconfirmed reports of mountain blue birds, but we've never nailed it down before. Its been hanging around near the Mormon church on East End Road and Its more of an interior bird," Erikson said. "Its range is the Rocky Mountains, and it will come as far north as Fairbanks, but it migrates through the interior and doesn't come in this direction."

Birds occasionally get confused and go in the wrong direction. "Its always interesting to us when that happens. We've had Asian birds who get lost. Instead of migrating south, they don't make it. They are adapted for a certain range and when they get out of that range Its usually to their detriment," Erikson said.

A total of 5,538 were counted this year, with a record of 68 species counted in a previous year. Kachemak Bay Birders could use more feeder watcher volunteers for this Christmas event in order to have an accurate count, Erikson said.



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