It isn’t time to call the season yet, but with April rapidly drawing to a close Kenai Peninsula birders may have to settle for below-average numbers of migratory birds using the Kenai and Kasilof river flats.
While there are still opportunities to see and hear birds in the area, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge biologists and area birders said the weather seems to be the culprit when it comes to the lack in numbers of ducks, geese, cranes and other fowl that use the marshy Kenai and Kasilof river flats as staging areas for their next hops north.
“The jury is still out,” said Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Technician Toby Burke.
This time of year, Burke spends a lot of time down on the flats, surveying birds, and typically, he said, the peak numbers of birds show up in the final days of April.
“So far it has been underwhelming, the number of birds. There are birds out there, but it’s not in the hundreds and thousands,” he said.
While the early onset of spring is a boon for outdoor recreation, it is also likely the cause of the lack of spectacular bird viewing.
“When there’s a colder spring, we tend to get that effect where birds stack up and stay longer,” Burke said. “When there’s less snow and ice, generally speaking the birds don’t stage here as long. They’ll stop, eat, and move quickly.”
But this year, similar to the 2014 spring, the flats have been wide open and it’s an indicator to the birds that other stops along their migratory routes may be open too.
“I’ve been watching the flats for the last 10 years and last year was by far the just an abominable year as far as staging here,” Burke said.
This time of year, the Kenai River flats are primarily hosting between eight and 10 common duck species, several species of geese, and sandpipers, said Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Fish and Wildlife Biologist Todd Eskelin. Shorebirds may be showing up as well, he said.
Eskelin said the birds could have been displaced from ponds that they’d normally use within easy sight distance of Bridge Access road.
“Typically we’d have a lot of birds that use the wetlands on that upriver side of Bridge Access where the pipeline construction activity is happening, so you’re not going to expect that they’d use those ponds at the same level,” Eskelin said. “There are some bigger ponds downstream … there are quite a bit of waterfowl using those.”
Eskelin said the winter weather patterns have been changing from historical norms and while the Kenai River flats are a critical stopover spot, the wide open marshes and lack of snow dictate what the general birder will see.
Wildlife photographer Robert Parsons agreed. Parsons has spent the last few weeks heading down to the flats with an 800mm lens on his camera, spending a few hours a day photographing beluga whales, seals, eagles and anything else he can find.
Parsons said the patient viewer will see flocks of birds roused when the eagles start hunting and stir up the birds that can’t be easily seen from the road or viewing platforms.
But, Parsons said, there are far fewer birds staging in the area than he’s seen in recent years, “a lot of them are just feeding and going.”
While the flats may not be hopping with birds, local birder Ken Tarbox said there are still plenty of birds to see and hear in the area.
“One of the best things you can do right now on a clear, cold night with no wind is go out owling,” he said.
Tarbox said he drove to the end of Swanson River Road in Sterling at midnight and heard three Great horned owls, three boreal owls and two saw-whet oils.
“It’s just a great time of year,” he said. “The birds are calling and they’re setting up their territories and the woodpeckers are doing their things. A walk in the woods with your ears open and looking, you can see a lot of different birds right now and more are coming in every day.”
Tarbox said he goes to the Kenai flats nearly every night and sees all sorts of bird activity, especially eagles hunting the thousands of gulls that nest along the river.
“There’s cooperative hunting,” he said. “Eagles will get the gulls up and get them up and … all of the sudden one lags behind and it gets taken. I’ve seen them actually share the spoils.”
Tarbox said he’s also seen geese start to move into the area from a wildlife viewing platform overlooking the Kenai River flats.
“Look to the east and those ponds are just loaded with white-fronted geese and right in the evening those birds are coming in to roost and rest for the night.”
Related links: Birding checklist http://kenaipeninsula.org/sites/default/files/Bird_checklist_KenaiPeninsula.pdf