Every year around the holidays, birding enthusiasts across the Western Hemisphere take part in the Christmas Bird Count. They document birds within a 15 mile radius over a 24-hour period, and the results are shared with the Audubon Society.
Public observations from the Christmas Bird Count are often helpful for researchers, and can provide vital information about local bird populations and habitat loss.
The Audubon Society has been organizing the Christmas Bird Count since 1900, and in Alaska, the Christmas Bird Count has happened every year since before statehood.
This year, Kodiak Island held its first count on December 18. A smaller, second count was held last week on a different part of the island, but the results from the first count are in, and they paint an incredible picture of local biodiversity.
Rich MacIntosh has been organizing Kodiak’s Christmas Bird Count since 1973, when he moved to the island. He said the weather can often make it difficult to survey local birds.
“I remember one count we did quite a long time ago, and in the paper the next day there was a photograph of a car that had been down on the docks that had a 2 by 4 that flew through the air and punctured the front window of the vehicle,” he said. “That was kind of indicative of that count day.”
Fortunately for MacIntosh – and the 77 other volunteers who joined in this year’s count – conditions were ideal for spotting birds during this year. The winter sun beamed from behind a wispy patchwork of clouds, and temperatures were in the high 30s.
The group documented 82 species – from yellow billed loons and trumpeter swans in the waters just outside town to ptarmigan in the surrounding peaks. The total number was nearly 14,000 individual birds. MacIntosh says that rich assortment is incredibly unique.
“Not all years, but most years we have the greatest species diversity in Alaska,” said MacIntosh. “The other locations that have good diversity are all coastal.”
Homer, Ketchikan and Juneau also tend to see a wide array of birds on count day. But Kodiak is special, according to Robin Corcoran. She’s the bird biologist at the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. She’s also on the board of the local Audubon Society, and took a research boat from the Wildlife Refuge out on Chiniak Bay for this year’s December count.
“Birding tends to be somewhat competitive,” Corcoran said. “So, for us it’s our pride and joy that in winter, Kodiak is this great place to be just because you have an opportunity to see so many different birds.”
That’s partially because of migratory patterns that place Kodiak Island in the crosshairs of birds heading both east and west. That means birds like emperor geese, which breed in the Yukon Delta, make their way to the Aleutians for winter. Kodiak is at the northwestern edge of other migratory birds’ ranges too.
“We’re sort of just in this weird central placement out there in the Gulf of Alaska that we get this sort of cool east-west blend of things that are just surprising,” explained Corcoran.
Birds that aren’t seen on Count Day can also be just as important as ones that end up in the tally. The group didn’t see a belted kingfisher this year. According to Corcoran, that’s only happened twice in over 40 years of Christmas Bird Counts.
“I think if you go back and look at the data it will be how cold we were early in the season and all the water froze up,” she said. “And I don’t know what happens to them, but all the belted kingfishers drop out of the population.”
That’s useful habitat data for the Audubon Society. And for local birdwatchers. MacIntosh says there’s even a few types of birds that have only been spotted once during all his years organizing the Christmas Count, like the short-tailed shearwater, spectacled eider, Anna’s hummingbird, among others.
A find like that through a pair of binoculars comes with special bragging rights for local bird watchers.
“All those are very rare here, some of them are rare in Alaska and some are rare in the winter,” said MacIntosh.
And it’s another reason to keep counting.