Alaska waterfowl warm to odd weather

Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2002

KENAI - The recent trend of warm weather may be bad for outdoors enthusiasts who enjoy winter sports such as skiing and snowshoeing, but many nature lovers aren't crying the blues.

The unseasonable temperatures mean increased viewing potential for many species of native wildlife, particularly swans, geese and ducks.

"The warm weather definitely affects wildlife," said Robin West, manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. "Many migrations were late and some migratory species are still here."

Trumpeter swans are the largest of North America's migratory birds, and one of the most frequently seen swans in Southcentral Alaska. Canada geese, with their black heads and necks, white cheek patches and dark chocolate-colored bodies, are one of the most familiar species to those not well versed in the ornithology of the area. Their characteristic "honking" can still be heard in many areas throughout the peninsula.

"Many of the waterfowl species that you would expect to move south as ponds and lakes freeze up are still here, especially the diver species," West said. "On the Kenai River we're still seeing lots of common mergansers, goldeneyes and buffleheads."

Divers, ducks that dive to forage underwater, have benefited from the warm weather. The lack of ice on peninsula lakes has provided more numerous feeding locations and allowed these species to remain for longer than normal. They've been able to build up fat reserves crucial to their migrations, by feeding on crustaceans, mollusks, small fish and aquatic insects that would generally be less - or not at all - accessible at this time of year.

Dabbling ducks, those that upend to feed underwater rather than dive completely under, also are still abundant in Southcentral. Mallards, a dabbling species easily recognized by the males' glossy-green heads, white neck rings, chestnut chests and coral-red feet, frequently are being observed. Drakes can be seen feeding on aquatic vegetation with their mottled-brown colored female mates.

"Mild winters like this mean increased survival of young birds due to the longer growing season," West said. "In a normal year when lakes would freeze up in September or October, the window would be short for young birds. They would have to grow quickly, develop flight feathers and go with mom and dad. In a year like this it's not even an issue."

"When and if winter finally arrives, most of these species will likely migrate, but a few will inevitably remain to overwinter here," West said. "Goldeneyes and mergansers have been known to stay through the winter in their habitat along the Kenai River, and buffleheads have been known to utilize the Kenai River Flats during this time."

Overall, the warm weather has provided a favorable climate for the peninsula's seasonal waterfowl. In the present, these conditions mean increased opportunities to see critters that would normally be much further south by now. In the future, it will likely mean more birds next year and thus more viewing potential on the horizon.

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