The Kenai Birding Festival is flocking into town and local birders have been gearing up for another year of showing off the more than 200 unique species of birds in the area.
The largely fee-free festival follows the popular southern Kenai Peninsula Kachemak Bay shorebird festival and the annual Copper River Delta shorebird festival in Cordova which bring out several hundred birders each year. Organizers of the Kenai birdfest said it was designed to draw a smaller crowd and cater to birders with all levels of ability.
Festivities begin on Thursday and run through Sunday as local birders and fishing guides provide tours of the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and other hot spots for birding.
“We wanted an intimate festival where people could come one on one and interact with people and not feel intimidated or overwhelmed by a group,” said organizer Ken Tarbox said. “We kind of purposefully tried to keep it small. But, we’ve got a lot of events in the field, so that if a crowd does show up we can accommodate them.”
One of the many draws to the 2015 festival is a Saturday woodpecker walk on the Funny River Horse Trail. Local Keen Eye Bird Club member Cyndie Avery will lead a walk to look for several kinds of woodpeckers, but the black-backed woodpecker could be spotted.
“The black-backed woodpecker likes burned out areas more than wooded areas, so you don’t find them in most of the habitat that we have out there. We’ll listen for the woodpeckers and then hopefully be able to, if we’re in an open enough area, find them in the binoculars,” she said.
If sighted, it would be Avery’s first time seeing one of the rare birds.
“They flake off the outer bark to uncover insect larva and when you see large patches of licked bark on trees it’s a clue that black-backed woodpeckers are in the area,” she said. “It’s a really good opportunity to get out there.”
George Kirsch, who lead three walks over the weekend alongside his wife Bev Kirsch, said bird populations tend to follow boom and bust cycles. On the Kenai Peninsula those cycles can sometimes cause drastic fluctuations in the numbers of birds he sees.
This year, a type of finch called a white-winged crossbill seems to be in a boom cycle.
“We probably saw 100,000 this winter and as often as not you don’t see any,” Kirsch said. He attributed the boom cycle to the cone crops on spruce trees which have been abundant this season.
Another common bird this season is the golden-crowned kinglet songbird.
“This year they’re very common but some years you can go 12 months without seeing one,” he said.
The three walks that the George and Bev Kirsch will lead are short in distance but each will take about two hours to complete. Kirsch said the couple focuses on teaching people to listen to the sounds around them and learn to identify what’s happening.
“I would say a lot of people don’t notice bird sounds,” he said. “They can be out hiking or fishing or whatever and it’s just kind of background sounds or noise that they block out and don’t think about. We talk a lot about being observant and seeing what’s out there.”
George Kirsch said several kinds of birds would likely be heard during the birding walks including yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, arctic terns, bonaparte’s gulls and chickadees. There are other birds, he said, that would likely be around but more difficult to pick out.
“The brown creepers are extremely high pitched and a lot of people can’t hear them or at least only hear part of their song,” he said. “A lot of fairly avid birdwatchers don’t even see creepers because you typically only find them when you hear them and a lot of people aren’t capable of hearing them.”
Tarbox said there were several hot spots for birders to see the avian variety in the area.
“The north bank of the Kasilof River with shorebirds is absolutely fantastic right now,” he said. Tarbox suggested heading to the river about three hours before high tide is scheduled to hit the Kenai river.
“The shorebirds feed right at the water edge and then the water pushes them right up to the bank,” he said. “We’ve counted as many as 20,000 shorebirds down there.”
Festival volunteers will also host a 24-hour midnight sun sit beginning at 6 a.m. on Saturday at the Kenai wildlife viewing platform on Boat Launch Road. Past participants have spotted more than 70 bird species in addition to moose, caribou, harbor seals and coyotes.
“This time of year is really good for the migratory shorebirds that are coming through,” Tarbox said. “Seabirds are starting to come in to breed. Gull Island is starting to get populated with birds. Puffins are starting arrive from their wintering areas. The terns just came back, arctic terns. Then the warblers are coming out right now. So the diversity is really good.”
During the 24-hour sit, Avery said she volunteers to sit from 9 p.m. to midnight and enjoys the late night birding.
“You see all of the birds, they’re all still fairly active out there. It’s still kind of light,” she said. “I love being out there by myself and having that quiet time to look around at everything.”
George Kirsch said he was looking forward to showing people around the area. It’s the second year that he and Bev Kirsch have led birding tours — though they have been birding for decades.
“What I enjoy most is going out with somebody that is on some level interested, but has never really taken the time to get started on it,” he said. “I enjoy having somebody that doesn’t know anything about bird calls or songs and they really seem to be enjoying it and learning and enthusiastic about it.”
For the Kirschs, birding has been a natural extension of a love of hiking and watching wildlife.
“Every time you go out the door, you see something new and you learn something new and there’s more knowledge there than anyone can accumulate in a lifetime,” he said.
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @litmuslens