The toughest bird in Alaska? Ounce for ounce, it's got to be the common redpoll.
Even after a half month of below-zero temperatures and a couple of snowstorms, the little finch with the bright red cap was still alive and chirping this week -- easily taking top honors locally in the Great Backyard Bird Count.
Out of 4,324 individual birds spotted in Anchorage during the four-day survey, which concluded Monday night, about two-thirds (2,723 birds) were redpolls. Observations of black-capped chickadees finished a distant second, at 348, followed by common ravens, at 306.
But all three species deserve special recognition as true winter birds, according to Stan Senner, executive director of the Alaska region of the National Audubon Society, which jointly sponsored the nationwide survey with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Lots of birds stick around Anchorage until the annual Christmas Bird Count in mid-December, Senner said. But only the hardiest can make it to March. This year, 36 species did.
"Usually by January or February, we've had some extended serious cold," he said. "So if you've made it this long, you really are a wintering bird -- no cheechako."
Redpolls were also the most likely bird species to persevere in more frigid temperatures to the north, according to results posted on the bird count Web site (at www.birdsource.org/gbbc).
In Fairbanks, where midwinter birds are scarce and participation in the survey was low -- only nine species were identified -- two-thirds of the birds spotted were common redpolls.
A protective layer of fat, along with feathers that ruffle up when they shiver, help little birds like chickadees and redpolls survive a northern winter, biologists say. So do their voracious appetites.
In his "Guide to the Birds of Alaska," ornithologist Robert Armstrong notes that redpolls have an enlarged esophagus, which in winter allows them to take in more food than most other finches and digest it through the night.
In Anchorage, redpolls usually remain plentiful throughout winter, local birder Pat Pourchot noted Tuesday, standing on the balcony of his home in South Addition, where several redpolls were attracted to his feeders.
But some years, this one included, they're especially plentiful. Only 620 redpolls were spotted in Anchorage in last year's backyard bird count. This year there were four times that many, and the number may still climb as more reports trickle in.
Also notable this year were several migratory bird species that normally don't winter this far north -- like the pair of short-eared owls Pourchot observed near the airport on Saturday. Or the varied thrush perched near his house. Or the increasing number of midwinter robins all across town (six were counted during the survey).
There are always a few robins in Anchorage in winter, Pourchot said.
"They date back on our Christmas bird counts quite a ways. But I think we've had higher counts of overwintering robins the last couple of years."
Senner believes global warming is pushing migratory birds farther north each winter. He points to the red-breasted nuthatches (85 were spotted in Anchorage this year, compared with 26 last year).
"If you were to have done a Christmas count here in the '60s, chances are you wouldn't have seen any red-breasted nuthatches," Senner said.
"It was too cold. But as the temperatures have warmed, you have more bark-beetle killed trees. And I think that's provided a little more foraging habitat for nuthatches."
Find George Bryson online at adn.com/contact/gbryson or call 257-4318.
THE COUNT: Visit the Great Backyard Bird Count Web site for all the numbers, state and national.