A spruce grouse, colloquially known as a “road chicken,” eyes the camera while perched along the Resurrection Pass Trail in Cooper Landing, Alaska, on April 29, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

A spruce grouse, colloquially known as a “road chicken,” eyes the camera while perched along the Resurrection Pass Trail in Cooper Landing, Alaska, on April 29, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Bird-watchers flock to the peninsula

Among the 56 species identified were peninsula regulars like cackling geese and sandhill cranes

Since the beginning of May, the Kenai Peninsula has been for the birds — and the birders. The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival drew nearly 1,000 people to Homer from around the globe to start off the month, and over the past several weekends the Kenai Peninsula Birding Festival has offered bird-watching enthusiasts even more opportunities to meet their fellow birders and hopefully cross a few rare species off their checklists.

For the past 14 years, the event was a four-day festival, but this year the event took place over three weekends — from May 18 to June 1. Ken Tarbox, who organizes the Kenai Birding Festival every year with the Keen Eye Bird Club, said they wanted to make it easier for people to participate in different activities by giving more time in between each event. The extended schedule also helped the volunteers fit the guided walks into their schedules. The first weekend featured a guided walk at the Kasilof River Flats as well as the annual 24-hour Midnight Sun Big Sit at the Kenai Wildlife Viewing Platform on Bridge Access Road.

From 6 a.m. Saturday, May 18 to 6 a.m. Sunday, May 19, the Big Sit served as a bird-watching base camp, with birders coming and going throughout the day to observe the multitude of birds that hang out on the Kenai River Flats. Tarbox said that this year at least 30 people helped to identify 56 species of birds over the 24-hour period, with some people stopping by briefly during their lunch break and others staying for several hours at a time. Toby Burke, who started the Midnight Sun Big Sit seven years ago, said that one man even showed up to the viewing platform at 5 a.m. Sunday morning after working the night shift.

“When you can get 56 species in one day, that makes for a great experience for someone new to the area,” Tarbox said.

There are other Big Sit events that take place at different times all over the world — including a national one every October. Burke said that the extended daylight hours in Alaska are the main reason Kenai’s 24-hour sit is possible, noting that it can be difficult to see much of anything in the middle of the night — even with a scope and binoculars.

Among the 56 species identified on Saturday were peninsula regulars like cackling geese and sandhill cranes, as well as a few rarer sightings, including a couple pairs of red-throated loons, a solitary snow goose and a northern flicker, which is a type of woodpecker. Burke said that this was the first time in his 35 years of bird-watching that he had seen a northern flicker on the peninsula, although they are relatively common throughout the rest of the country.

The weekend of May 25 featured another guided walk at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and this weekend will mark the end of the festival with two more walks at Bishop Creek and Stormy Lake in the Captain Cook State Recreation Area. Tarbox said anyone interested should meet in the Bishop Creek parking lot by 8 a.m on Saturday. Tarbox, Burke and other volunteers will lend their expertise to the more novice birders by helping to identify bird songs and map out hot spots along the way.

For more details, call Ken Tarbox at 907-262-7767 or visit the Kenai Peninsula Birding Festival Facebook page.

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