Ten thousand Juneau birds

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2007

If you think there are a lot of ravens in Juneau, you're right.

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On Dec. 15, Juneau birders counted 575 ravens, an all-time high. That day, about 40 wildlife watchers spread out through the Juneau area to count every single bird they could find. The most abundant birds proved to be the ubiquitous glaucous-winged gull and the mallard duck. Overall, birders counted 10,875 birds representing 70 different species.

Established by the national Audubon Society in 1900, the Christmas bird count is an annual winter event that takes place across North America. The information provides insights into trends and the distribution of birds, and can be viewed at the Audubon Society's Web site, www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/.

Retired biologist Mark Schwan is the official Juneau bird count compiler and serves as the vice president of the local Audubon Society. He said although the count is done on a single day, birders are allowed to scout locations in advance and an overall count of species is done over the course of a week. This year, the count week included 85 species total. Pre-count scouting revealed some unusual visitors to the Mendenhall Valley - a group of three wood ducks in the pond at the Lakeside condos.

"Southern B.C. is the northern end of their range, so they're pretty far from home," Schwan said.

Other surprises included a white throated sparrow on Gastineau Avenue and a Harris sparrow in the Mendenhall Valley, both well outside their normal winter range.

"No one had any idea these birds were around," Schwan said. Juneau bird watchers are quick to pass on information about unusual sightings or watching opportunities in the area. This week, the hot tips are buntings near the Airport Dike Trail and a plethora of Bohemian waxwings downtown. Tips are passed on through Eaglechat, a local bird-watching Web site (http://pets.groups.yahoo.com/group/eaglechat/).

More unusual was what was not found, Schwan said. The count day marked an all-time low for Northwestern crows at just 189 birds.

"People were asking, 'Where are the crows?' I didn't see one all day," Schwan said.

On count day just two years ago, birders counted 1,600 crows, and the 20-year average for the count day is 870. Schwan said he's not worried that the population is in trouble.

"The numbers go up and down, I don't know why," he said. "If there was a major disease outbreak we'd see a bunch of dead crows. There's no trend of decline."

Schwan said the Juneau area Christmas bird count data does indicate some trends - an increase in ducks such as mallards and widgeons. This marks the 35th year of the count in Juneau.

Gustavus birders reported a new local record for the number of species counted: 76. Among the species new to the count were swamp sparrow, rough-legged hawk, red-tailed hawk, and ruby-crowned kinglet. Other rarities included horned lark, northern flicker, and black oystercatcher.

• Riley Woodford is a writer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He is the editor of Alaska Fish and Wildlife News (http://www.wildlifenews.alaska.gov/) and produces the "Sounds Wild" radio program.

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