This adult male Bobolink was singing and displaying in a distant field near Homer, Alaska. With the aid of a 500mm lens, astute birders documented the first occurrence of this species on the Kenai Peninsula. (Photo by Sarah Dzielski)

This adult male Bobolink was singing and displaying in a distant field near Homer, Alaska. With the aid of a 500mm lens, astute birders documented the first occurrence of this species on the Kenai Peninsula. (Photo by Sarah Dzielski)

Refuge Notebook: The Future of the Bobolink

June 23, 2019 started as almost every other day this summer. Hot, dry weather dominated from Hope to Seldovia. It was, however, unique in the birding world. Three visiting birders in Homer spotted a displaying adult male Bobolink singing at Seaside Farms in Homer, Alaska. It was well-photographed and recordings of the song were also collected.

The Bobolink is a stunning bird from the prairie region of the U.S. Males look like a blackbird that fell over backwards and landed in a bucket of yellowish white paint. The back of their head is dipped cream colored and most of their back is a grayish white, with the rest of their head and breast a glossy jet black.

This species spends the entire winter outside of the U.S., ranging to southern South America. Over the past several decades, ornithologists believe Bobolink numbers have been decreasing 1% to 1.5% per year. It is definitely one of the neotropical migratory birds people are concerned about in North America.

The occurrence of a new species of bird on the Kenai Peninsula is not always earth shattering. My go-to saying is “birds have wings and will travel.” We expect to eventually see some bird species. These birds may have occurred in other areas of the state, but are just not recorded on the Kenai yet. For these species, it is just a matter of time.

In other cases, we have no expectation of finding a particular species on the Kenai, but birds sometimes lose their way, only to become documented by a fortunate birder. In the last five years, 17 new species have been entered into eBird. The majority of these new records fit into the first category where there was a reasonable expectation that we would see them eventually on the Kenai if we just kept searching.

The Bobolink is what I would consider a hybrid of both types of new species sighting scenarios. It has been spotted in the state before, but all previous sightings in eBird were from southeast Alaska and spread out between 1991 and recent years. There was also a sighting from the Palmer area, but it never made it into eBird so the data is not readily accessible.

Nothing about the pattern of those previous sightings would make you think it would end up on the Kenai Peninsula. It also does not fit into the category of a one-time sighting with no expectations of ever seeing it again, since it had been seen elsewhere on multiple occasions.

Interestingly, the Bobolink’s occurrence in southcentral Alaska was actually predicted from climate suitability models that the Audubon Society copleted in 2017 for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. These scientists identified several grassland species that could become colonizers of the western Kenai Peninsula by the end of the century based on the current and predicted temperatures and other climate variables.

In 2019, Audubon released their latest interactive report on bird species vulnerability for over 600 species in North America ( In this report you can actually control the variable of how fast the temperature is rising and even at the 1.5 degree Celsius level you begin to see a signature indicating colonization of Bobolink in southcentral Alaska north of the Kenai Peninsula.

Unfortunately for the Bobolink, their expansion to the north and west coincides with a slightly larger loss of suitable conditions along the southern extent of their known breeding range. If you select an even warmer scenario of three degrees Celsius, the model predicts a loss of 88% of the known breeding range, maintenance of 12% of the existing range, and a gain of 56% of newly colonized area by the end of this century. In all of these scenarios, there is still an overall net loss of nesting habitat for this species and this does not even consider changes on the wintering range.

There are several other surprising species on the list that have already been spotted on the Kenai Peninsula including Eastern Kingbird, Warbling Vireo and a 2019 discovery of a Red-eyed Vireo that was killed by a cat. I will not pretend that these individual sightings are a definitive measure validating any of these models. Nor would I profess that I believe all of the predictive outcomes of this model. I would consider them conversation pieces that raise questions about what the bird assemblages will look like if the climate continues to track on the current trajectory.

What I find truly alarming is the list of species that may find the climate and subsequent vegetation types unsuitable in the future on the Kenai Peninsula. Species like Rock and Willow Ptarmigan and Spruce Grouse are species that are loved by photographers, hunters, lynx, coyotes, large raptors and a host of other predators. What does our Kenai Peninsula look like if the models are even remotely accurate and we lose half or all of our ptarmigan or grouse?

Todd Eskelin is a Wildlife Biologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999-present) at or other info at

More in Sports

Alaska 20 pitcher Mose Hayes throws the ball to teammate Tanner Ussing while Dimond player Logan Sweet dives back onto first base during a Saturday, July 4, 2020 Alliance Baseball League game at Karen Hornaday Park in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Alaska 20 splits doubleheader in Homer

In a rare appearance in Homer, Alaska 20 split an Independence Day… Continue reading

The view from Slaughter Gulch trail in Cooper Landing, Alaska, on June 20, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)
Out of the Office: Life on the Edge

Are you a planner? An organizer? A list-maker? I’m not. I love… Continue reading

Refuge Notebook: Rains, rocks and trail work on the Swanson River

Rain pounded against the windshield, encouraging a creeping melancholy as I drove… Continue reading

Alaska 20.
Alaska 20 splits with Eagle River

Alaska 20 picked up a league victory and took a nonleague loss… Continue reading

Chad Anderson of Kasilof and Allie Ostrander guide Everett Anderson, 3, to the finish line Wednesday, July 19, 2017, at the Salmon Run Series at Tsalteshi Trails. Getting the free ride on Chad’s shoulders is Ben Anderson, 2. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)
Salmon Run Series announces race details

The Salmon Run Series announced details for the 2020 event Wednesday. The… Continue reading

Alaska 20.
South sweeps Alaska 20

South notched a Sunday sweep of the Alaska 20, notching a 4-1… Continue reading

The view of Seward from the top of Mt. Marathon was a cloudy one on Thursday, June 18, 2020. (Photo by Kat Sorensen)
Tangled Up in Blue: Shifting clouds

Every cloudy day is different. On a bluebird day, from the window… Continue reading

Tales of a Federal Wildlife Officer: Brown bears at Russian River

The opening of this year’s sockeye fishery at the Kenai/Russian River confluence… Continue reading

Wasilla sweeps Alaska 20

Alaska 20 dropped 15-0 and 18-5 decisions to Wasilla on Wednesday at… Continue reading

Most Read