Two travelers follow birds to Kenai Peninsula

This time of year, migratory birds are following the Pacific Flyway up to breeding grounds in Alaska — some, such as Arctic Terns, from beyond the tip of South America. Following the birds part of the way have been two migratory humans: Christian Michael McWilliams and Jean Carlos Rodriguez-Ramos, who this week ended their 3 month “bird trip” in the Kenai Peninsula.

Sponsored and organized by a group of U.S and Canadian wildlife agencies and conservation organizations — including the Audobon Society, the National Park Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and Canada’s Wildlife Service — the trip began in San Diego and has brought the two to bird habitat sites and birding events along the migration route in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Denali, Fairbanks, and the Kenai Peninsula. Alaska is an apt place for the bird trip to conclude. In the geography of bird migrations, Alaska belongs to the Pacific Flyway, the western-most of four broad paths dividing the Americas into routes birds follow south in the winter and north in the summer.

McWilliams described the state as a “concentration point” for migratory birds searching for breeding and nesting sites.

“The biggest reason Alaska is important to migratory birds is you’ve got birds coming from Russia, South America, and even from the East Coast, just concentrating here to breed,” McWilliams said. “Once they’re finished, they’ll disperse again.”

During the trip from San Diego, the pair watched as north-flying bird flocks molted into their breeding plumage in preparation for their arrival in Alaska. Now they’ve seen the long migrations conclude at the gull colony at the mouth of the Kenai River, the seabird nests of Kachemak Bay’s Gull Island, and recently on a 7 hour float trip on Skilak Lake with local birders, during which Rodriguez-Ramos said they recorded 70 species of bird by sight or sound. Notable sightings included kingfishers — more than Rodriguez-Ramos had ever seen in one place — and what McWilliams said is his new favorite bird, the red-throated loon. Puffins were another highlight of the Alaskan leg of their journey.

“That was really cool,” Ramos-Rodriguez said. “It’s this bird that you see on TV or in cartoons or somewhere else, and now you can see it in real life.”

The trip has afforded them an opportunity to see not only birds, but also human reactions to birds.

In their time on the peninsula, they’ve participated in two birding festivals: Homer’s Shorebird Festival and the Kenai Birding Festival, which concludes on Sunday.

“People around here are more aware of bird issues, and bird conservation,” said Ramos-Rodriguez. “Every place we’ve stayed here, people have bird feeders. In California, they didn’t have that much consciousness that birds are passing through. Here, it’s more of a natural environment, so people can actually see them and hear them, and that influences it a lot.”

McWilliams attributed the difference to Alaska’s lower population and larger area of undeveloped land. In these respects, the northern end point of their trip is the opposite of where it began.

“We’d ask people, ‘what is there to do here?’ in small random towns in California,” McWilliams said. “They’d say ‘nothing.’ (I’d ask) but what about that huge refuge you have over there? They didn’t know what it was. And that doesn’t happen here. Everyone knows where the refuges are, (and) various areas where they can spend time outdoors here.”

McWilliams said he noticed a diminished bird habitat while traveling by car to bird sites in California, where “you can drive around and be surrounded for miles and miles by agricultural lands that used to be real important areas for birds.”

“A lot of the habitats we went through in California only exist now because the state of California pumps water there and keeps it going,” he said.

McWilliams said conservation awareness “could go a long way in diversifying the population that’s involved in conservation — right now it’s largely older white people.”

Doing so was one goal of their trip. McWilliams and Ramos-Rodriguez — both native Spanish speakers — have attempted to involve Latino communities in conservation by giving Spanish-language presentations in schools they’ve visited and are writing a bilingual blog about the trip. McWilliams said birds are a good tool for creating interest in conservation.

“I see birds as this large group of charismatic species, and use them to get people on board with the larger conservation movement,” McWilliams said. “… Everything a bird needs are things that help other species. Like if you maintain a habitat to help birds that are coming through for a time of the year, you’re also helping every other species that uses that wetlands to survive.”


Reach Ben Boettger at

More in News

Sens. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, right, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, discuss a bill proposing a nearly 17% increase in per-student education funding Wednesday at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini /Juneau Empire)
State Senate bill would bump per-student funding amount by $1,000

If approved, the legislation would bump state education funding by more than $257 million

Recognizable components make up this metal face seen in a sculpture by Jacob Nabholz Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, at the Kenai Art Center, in Kenai, Alaska, as part of Metalwork & Play. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Metalwork gets time to shine

Metal is on showcase this month at the Kenai Art Center

This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. The Biden administration issued a long-awaited study on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, that recommends allowing three oil drilling sites in the region of far northern Alaska. The move, while not final, has angered environmentalists who see it as a betrayal of President Joe Biden’s pledges to reduce carbon emissions and promote green energy. (ConocoPhillips via AP)
Biden administration recommends major Alaska oil project

The move — while not final — drew immediate anger from environmentalists

Homer Electric Association General Manager Brad Janorschke testifies before the Senate Resources Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in Juneau, Alaska. (Screenshot via Gavel Alaska)
Senate group briefed on future of Cook Inlet gas

Demand for Cook Inlet gas could outpace supply as soon as 2027

The logo for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is displayed inside the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Peninsula voices join state debate over school funding

Lawmakers heard pleas from education leaders around Alaska to increase the state’s base student allocation

Tamera Mapes and a client laugh and joke with one another during a free haircut at Project Homeless Connect on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Caring and connecting

Project Homeless Connect offers a variety of services

This September 2011 aerial photo provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, shows the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, effectively vetoed a proposed copper and gold mine in the remote region of southwest Alaska that is coveted by mining interests but that also supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. (Joseph Ebersole/EPA via AP)
EPA blocks Pebble Mine

Pebble called the EPA’s action “unlawful” and political and said litigation was likely

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
COVID-19 cases continue to climb

Statewide hospitalizations decreased slightly

A plow truck clears snow from the Kenai Spur Highway on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna council approves extra $100k for snow removal

At the end of December, the department was already more than $27,000 over their $100,000 budget for snow removal

Most Read