KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) — People were combing the countryside, city neighborhoods, lakes, harbors and woods earlier this month, as participants in the 113th annual National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count.
Count compiler and long-time birder Andy Piston said this year's count was "super high," at 79 species tallied by 25 volunteers.
Although Piston still was calculating final numbers, he said his tentative totals showed there were 87 species noted during the count week — three days before, and three days after the Christmas count day.
"That is way higher than every other year," he said. "We've pretty much been setting records."
He said he thinks it's mostly because there are more volunteers now, who can cover a larger area.
There were a few discoveries that caused local birders a lot of excitement this year.
The day before count day, Barbara Morgan captured an image of an unusual-looking water bird at Casey Moran Harbor and sent it to the Ketchikan Birders Facebook page, which is run by birder and photographer Jim Lewis.
Piston identified it as a black guillemot, and said it was "spectacularly rare" in Southeast Alaska, with no records of previous sightings.
"It was the hottest bird of the count," he said.
Black guillemots normally winter on the edges and openings of pack ice in the Bering Sea and Arctic.
Birders rushed to the harbor to photograph and study the bird, posting several portraits of the lone visitor to Lewis' Facebook group.
Another exciting discovery was a palm warbler sighted by Piston several days earlier in a swampy area of a neighbor's property. That, also, was the first-recorded Southeast Alaska sighting.
The third big Christmas Count Week discovery was the sightings of two swamp sparrows, which he said are "really rare" in Alaska. He said they usually are found only east of the Rocky Mountains, with very small numbers along the West Coast.
"It seems like we've seen a lot of interesting stuff this year," Lewis said, adding that he "always" is out looking for birds, photographing them and studying their behavior.
Some of the most frequent sightings this year were the common merganser, glaucous-winged gulls, dark-eyed juncos and pine siskins, which took the number-one spot for highest numbers at about 600, Piston said.
Piston has been in charge of compiling all of the data in the Ketchikan area count circle since 2005. Christmas Bird Counts have been conducted in Ketchikan since 1988, and Piston has participated since about 1998, he said. He has traveled extensively to watch birds, and recently helped to band birds on Middleton Island, about 60 miles south of Prince William Sound.
According to birds.audubon.org, the first Christmas Bird Count was on Christmas Day, 1900. It was created as an alternative to the traditional "side hunt," in which people competed to shoot the highest number of birds in one day.
The Christmas Bird Count is important because it tracks trends over time, utilizing similar efforts, in the same areas, at the same time of year, making the data collected scientifically significant, Piston said. The Ketchikan count circle is a 10-mile radius, with the center approximately at Ketchikan Lakes. The circle is divided into areas assigned to the same people or groups each year if possible.
"It's really good scientific data," Teri Hoyt, a 30-year birder, said.
She has participated in about 20 Ketchikan bird counts. She also has written articles for the Juneau Audubon Society newsletter, "The Raven," she said, and has been to locations around the world to find birds to add to her life list.
This year, Hoyt said she saw 40 species, including the forest-dwelling goshawk. She said they are "pretty good-sized" birds that swoop through the woods hunting squirrels and other small prey. They have been sighted more frequently, and she said she thinks there could possibly be an increase in their numbers related to the recent invasion of eurasian collared-doves.
The doves were released in the Bahamas in the 1970s, and colonies have established across the nation, incrementally, since.
Other interesting finds Piston mentioned were sightings of Brandt's cormorant, a western gull, which normally are found farther south, and two Anna's hummingbirds.
Piston said an interesting change in bird numbers over the past 20 years has been the severe decline in gull numbers — about 25 percent of what they used to be. He said two big changes in the community lessened the gullls' interest in the area — the landfill no longer processes household trash, and fish processors are using more of the waste they produce rather than dumping it into the water.
Longtail ducks, which used to be seen in large flocks behind the canneries also have been "way down" this year, he said. Hoyt said she saw a lone longtail the other day.
She said weather plays a part in whether a species is spotted, and "big variations" in sightings are often seen. This year, for instance, she saw nine Steller's jays, but last year she saw none. This year, she saw a male robin, usually sighted close to spring.
Piston said that most of Alaska's communities participate in the Christmas count, and Ketchikan has had a long-standing informal competition with Juneau for species numbers. He said Juneau is hard to beat because of its Mendenhall wetlands, which attract a large number of waterfowl. Hoyt said Ketchikan has been winning the past couple of years, however.
Hoyt said she enjoys birding because birds are amazingly varied, and, she said, "it's hobby you can do anywhere, and it's a challenge."
She said it's easy even for very busy people to fit into their other activities, and said a pair of binoculars can be tucked into the kitchen — to study birds that come to nearby feeders — or into the car, for sightings while out and about.
"You never know when you're going to see some freakish bird," she said. She added that "it's really kind of special" when a rare sighting is made, such as the black guillemot, and she is there to witness it.
Lewis said the Christmas Bird Count is a great way for people to get out and do "something they wouldn't do otherwise."
Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com