Southeast Wild: Juneau checklist of birds is work in progress

Birders compile a list to help narrow the focus to birds known to area

Posted: Sunday, October 05, 2003

There are three elementary tools that are truly indispensable for anyone who wants to study and learn about the birds in their area: a decent pair of binoculars, one or more field guides and a checklist to help narrow the possibilities and focus on the birds that are known to occur in the area.

Ten years ago, individual birders kept records of their own observations, but there was no published, comprehensive listing of all the species of birds observed to date in the immediate Juneau area.

In 1993, after the untimely death of Pete Isleib, Alaska's premier birder and friend to many of the birders in Juneau, several of us decided to assemble a checklist of Juneau's birds for the local Audubon Society and dedicate it to Pete. Steve Zimmerman, Rich Gordon, Gus van Vliet and I sat down and began drafting the list based on our individual records and published information. Van Vliet contacted local experts and dug through old manuscripts, adding invaluable information. The late Ralph Williams was a tremendous help.

Our checklist took shape. In 1993 we had 254 species confirmed, with probable or hard evidence of about 100 species nesting annually in the Juneau area. Another 14 species were listed as reported, but seen by only one observer and not documented by photograph. With five degrees of abundance for each species in each season, and designations for birds as just casual or with only one or two previous records, the list became extremely tedious to compile. But the effort resulted in a brochure packed full of information about the local avifauna.

However, no sooner had the checklist been published, it became out of date.

Peggy Cowan and Molly McCafferty saw a cattle egret out the road. Paul Suchanek saw red knots on the wetlands in late summer, a species listed as a rare spring migrant only and never reported during the fall migration.

Over time, the abundance designations for certain species didn't seem quite right. The barred owl, once considered an accidental species, was now being heard or seen every year and in all seasons.

By the time our revised checklist was completed earlier this year, we added 17 new species to the confirmed list and 10 additional species to the unconfirmed list. And we made many changes to the seasonal status of species already on the list. Among the new species on the updated list are eared grebe, little gull, ash-throated flycatcher, purple martin, red-throated pipit, black-throated blue warbler and lazuli bunting.

So whats going on here? One might think that several decades of observations in a localized area would allow us to compile a list of birds and their abundance with little need to change the list over time.

The reasons are likely an interesting mix of local history, bird behavior and the behavior of birders.

The fact that new birds have been seen in Juneau is not surprising. With their ability and inclination to fly thousands of miles in annual migrations, birds sometimes get off track and lost. Certain species have stronger tendencies to wander, such as the scissor-tailed flycatcher spotted by Jim and Mary Lou King near their home this summer. Other sightings, over time, begin to document something more meaningful, such as the barred owl. Cassin's vireo, first recorded in our area in 1993, is now seen annually. Granted, it is rare, but this species' northern distribution may be expanding.

But for these species to get added to the list, somebody has to see them and know what they are observing and adequately document the sighting. That's where the birder effect comes into play.

There haven't been many hard-core birders in Juneau, so just a few people can make a big difference in capturing new information. Suchanek, a local retired Fish and Game biologist, perhaps devotes more time to searching out birds in Juneau than any local birder ever has, and he is second to none at documenting what he sees in a computerized database. Paul's observations have become an invaluable reference and his contributions to the revised checklist were substantial.

The Eurasian teal, an addition to the revised list, is an old world or Palearctic version of our green-winged teal. Years ago it was known as the common teal, a separate species. But then it was determined to be just a slightly different form of the green-wing. Soon it probably will be given full species status again. This kind of stuff wreaks havoc with checklists. The Cassin's vireo was still considered a western race of the solitary vireo when it was first found in Juneau. Finally, sometimes bird names are changed because they may be offensive: The long-tailed duck was formerly known as oldsquaw.

Juneau is a great place for birds and birders. The varied habitats are diverse, and Juneau's list of documented birds has more species than any other area in Alaska. With newer, more detailed field guides, outstanding optical equipment, digital cameras, and advanced articles on identifying confusing species, birders have all the tools at hand for identifying almost any bird encountered in the field.

More people in Juneau are taking up birding all the time; with their passion and the necessary tools at hand, our local birders will continue to make valuable contributions to our knowledge on the status and distribution of birds in the Juneau area.

Copies of the new checklist will be available at the monthly meeting of Juneau Audubon Society at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, or on its Web site at

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