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Lucky Peninsula birder gets help documenting rare Alaska visitor

Photo courtesy Laura Burke via The Redoubt Reporter

When Toby Burke, a technician for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, spotted what he thought was a bird never before officially documented in Alaska, he was so dumbfounded he couldn't manage to snap a picture of it. Lucky for him, his wife returned to the scene later and kept her cool. Her shots proved that Burke had discovered a western willet, a member of the sandpiper family common on the East Coast and occasionally seen in the West.

Had Toby Burke been back East when he saw the long-beaked, long-legged shorebird sitting in the grass rimming a tidal pool along Boat Launch Road in Kenai on Friday morning, he wouldn't have given it another look. But he was in Alaska, and once he realized what the bird might be, his eyes all but popped out of his head.

"There's only been one previous sighting in Alaska, and it was unsubstantiated - never photographer or unequivocally proven - in August 1961 in the Minto Flats. So this one here is at least the first one that's been documented, if not the first one that's been seen in Alaska," said Burke. ...

The bird was more than a foot tall, with long gray legs and a long, straight, dark-colored beak. The plumage coloring was dark grayish brown above a lighter tone underneath. Not particularly noteworthy on first glance, but Burke grew up back East and is familiar enough with willets to know that, hidden under the unassuming plumage, is a white rump and dark band on the tail and distinctive, black-and-white pattern hidden on the wings.

Since the sighting, birders from across Southcentral Alaska and beyond have been flocking to the Kenai Flats for a chance to add the willet to their state lists.

Read more at The Redoubt Reporter: Where there's a willet, there's a way