On land: Juneau's 43rd annual Christmas bird counters listen, look, count

One year, while on vacation, my partner Bjorn and I went snorkeling and marveled at the life in the world beneath us – there’s a whole world that if you stay above the water’s surface, you’ll never see.

 

I felt, when I first started paying attention to birds, like I had begun snorkeling on land. A dark-eyed junco, hopping along a hiking trail, was a revelation. The pine siskins settling on the rail of the deck to our Douglas condo dived at each other in competition; crossbills cracked seeds while standing on our feeder. How had I never paid attention to birds before? How had I only known how to identify robins, ravens and gulls?

Jan. 2 of this year, I finally got the chance to participate in the Juneau Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, a long-running annual count in Juneau and in locations around the state and country. It’s the United States’ “longest-running citizen science bird project,” begun in 1900 as an alternative to competitive shoots, according to the society.

I showed up at 8 a.m. to find more than a dozen fellow birders gathered at Foodland IGA, sipping coffee. More than 40 participated in the count overall, with some additional birders at home, watching their feeders.

“We’re birdwatchers. We always wanted to come. Now, the kids are old enough,” Jennifer Shapland, a first time Christmas bird-counter, told me.

I tagged along with group leader and long-time birder Patty Rose, and mother-daughter counters Kelly and Mackenzie Burnett. We crunched along the icy trails around the ruins of the Treadwell Mine, making our way down to Sandy Beach for a group of 175 surf scoters floating in a tight raft near the pump house. A group of dogs ran by with their owners, and the scoters took off, wings whistling, to settle back into the water a little ways out. We turned to walk back into the cottonwood and alders, angling our hoods so as to keep the sideways rain out of our ears. Patty meandered ahead, keeping an eye out for some species she’d seen earlier in count week, when the weather had been much better. Mackenzie, who is a dispatcher with the Juneau Police Department and apparently has amazing hearing, stopped. “Did you guys hear that? It sounded like a creeper.”

We shook our heads, but we stopped and listened for a while. A raven croaked, and Mackenzie croaked back at it.

“175 surf scooters,” I typed with wet, numb fingers, as my phone made some creative autocorrects. “Four glaucoma winged gulls.” (It’s supposed to be “glaucous-winged.”)

We walked up higher, and saw a crowd of 30 Barrow’s goldeneye floating at the Treadwell cave-in, along with a Pacific loon, some common mergansers, and some hooded red-breasted mergansers. On the way back to the parking lot, Mackenzie heard the sound again. We stopped, and this time, we heard it, too. A brown creeper was hiding on the far side of a tree trunk somewhere near us.

Near the shelters, a flock of dark-eyed juncos and chestnut backed chickadees pecked at seeds Patty had spread ahead of time, and as we headed to the car where she had stored the still dry and legible count sheet, a flock of starlings rose into the air near the baseball diamond. Patty, Mackenzie and Kelly moved on, counting around the harbor and other Douglas locations.

The rainy weather on count day meant there were quite a few species birders saw during the rest of count week, but not on count day itself, said organizer Mark Schwan.

“The weather just plain made it very difficult to see, and the birds were hunkered down,” he wrote in an email. “We had a boating party, which is unusual for us, but the weather out toward Portland Island was so bad that the party had to abort and come home.” Instead, they counted in more sheltered areas closer to Juneau.

Overall, Juneau birders found 5,982 birds and 54 species on count day – much below average - with 19 more species found the surrounding week.

“Nineteen species is likely the most we have ever added during a count week, and this is because we missed so many birds on the count day but the weather improved markedly over the next few days, and birders found many additional species,” he wrote. Though there weren’t any high or low records for this, the 43rd count in Juneau, they found below a below average number of birds for many species, he said.

A few of the more unusual finds: a spotted towhee, a red-breasted sapsucker, two long-billed dowitchers, and a yellow-rumped warbler. On count week, birders found a redhead and double-crested cormorant.

Other Southeast communities participated, too; of those already reported, Ketchikan birders found 57 species and 3,470 birds; Tenakee Springs birders found 37 species and 2,188 birds. Gustavus, Craig-Klawock, Haines, Sitka, and Skagway are among the additional communities participating in Southeast.

It’s too early to tell if there are trends, said Beth Peluso, Audubon Alaska’s Communications Director. In Fairbanks, where she lives, there were relatively few redpolls, but though that’s unusual for the interior, it’s also dependent on the spruce seed crop.

“If it’s not a good crop, they just go somewhere else,” she said.

Common murres, a seabird normally found in the Gulf of Alaska, have also been spotted in the interior. Some have been underweight, and sent to bird rescue organizations, and thousands have been found dead in Prince William Sound. Peluso said she’s not sure why - she’s heard local birders speculate it’s a storm system, or maybe a food problem in an El Niño year.

Juneau counters found 159 common murres, though, true to their name, the birds aren’t uncommon here.

• Contact Juneau Empire outdoors editor Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.

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