Outside with a purpose: Bird Watching

Posted: Sunday, April 11, 2004

Juneau Audubon Society President Brenda Wright doesn't need a special occasion to be birding. Whether headed for a walk or to work, she is ready for a bird-spotting every time she walks out her door.

"I do it all the time," Wright said. "I always have my binoculars. I just don't go outside without them."

Wright is one of hundreds in Juneau who partake in the increasingly popular activity of bird-watching or birding.

Birders are classified as those who are looking to identify birds and add them to a "life list." Bird watchers are less interested in the names of birds but enjoy observing their activity and listening to their songs. Both groups share a fascination with the flying creatures.

"Some birds in Alaska migrate to Antarctica - that's 12,000 miles," said Karla Hart, Watchable Wildlife Program coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

One species in Western Alaska migrates from there to New Zealand nonstop, Hart said.

"Just think about that. You're a little bird and you hatched on the tundra and you learned how to fly and you ate a lot ... and then one day you take off and fly 10,000 miles," she said.

Hart, who considers herself a low-intermediate birder, enjoys birding because birds are "more approachable" than other wildlife, she said. And birding in Juneau is even better because of the diversity of birds that can be found here.

Because of its prime location on the migration route of many birds, Southeast Alaska is considered to have some of the richest birding diversity in the state, Hart said.

Nearly 300 species of birds have been spotted along the road and trail system in Juneau and on adjacent waters. The total number of documented species in Alaska to date is 471. About 325 of those are sighted regularly in the state.

The migrating birds add to the diversity of birding in Juneau, and turn each trip outdoors into a treasure hunt.

Hart is not alone in her love of birding. The American Audubon Society estimates the number of birders in America has increased steadily in recent years, Wright said. About 120 people in Juneau are members of the Juneau Audubon Society.

Getting a good start in birding is easiest if a beginner is accompanied by an experienced birder. That's why birders of all levels are encouraged to attend the Juneau Audubon Society walks on Saturday mornings in the spring, Wright said.

Birding is a year-round hobby, but the spring is an especially interesting time to watch birds. Many pass through Juneau on their way north, and some of the birds sport interesting plumage in the spring to attract mates.

The Audubon Society walks are lead by a different birder each week, but often three or four experienced birders accompany the groups to share scopes or binoculars and knowledge. A schedule of the walks is on www.Juneau-Audubon-Society.org.

However popular birding becomes, Juneau trails rarely become overcrowded with birders, said Paul Suchanek, a retired fisheries biologist who now birds daily.

The airport dike trail is the most popular birding space in Juneau, but Suchanek prefers the Fish Creek area on North Douglas and the Outer Point trail.

At Point Bridget State Park, "you can see just about any species of bird that occurs here in Juneau, in big open meadows and without a lot of people," Suchanek said.

After 25 years of birding, Suchanek has 600 birds on his life list, 275 of which he's seen in Alaska.

His favorite birds to spot in Juneau are waterfowl.

"One of my favorite waterfowl species is the northern pintail - nice-looking birds," Suchanek said. "I'd say they're one of the more elegant waterfowl. They are not particularly common here in Juneau, but they are moving through already."

Other birds that are easy to spot this time of year are Canada geese, eagles, crows, ravens and mallard ducks. Though common, these birds can provide for some interesting viewing.

"A lot of times you don't see birds very up-close," Suchanek said. "But even birds that are really quite common around Juneau, such as bald eagles, they're a type of bird that's very impressive to look at, especially if you're up close to one or its doing something interesting, chasing birds or eating a fish or something."

• Christine Schmid can be reached at christine.schmid@juneauempire.com.

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