Sulli Gibson watched as a ring-necked duck dipped beneath the surface of Westchester Lagoon on a recent Sunday morning.
A first-of-the-year Anchorage sighting of the bird had come in just hours earlier.
“Not necessarily a rare bird, but it’s always exciting the first time you see it,” said Gibson, 26, who in non-pandemic times guides enthusiastic tourists on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs.
Lately, Anchorage has been seeing new birds arriving daily, making it an excellent time to pull on some boots and catch a glimpse of the avians.
Weekend traffic whizzed past on Minnesota Drive, and pieces of litter floated by in the smaller portion of the lagoon that sits east of the thoroughfare and just south of downtown Anchorage. On first glance, one might only notice the mallards and hear a couple of swooping gulls.
But to a perceptive birder like Gibson, the neighborhood pond is an expanse of new birds.
“If I lived close to here ... I would come here every day,” Gibson remarked as a chorus of birds called overhead. “I almost do anyway.”
While Anchorage boasts relatively easy access to wilderness, the city also has some less-scenic alcoves and mucky, murky, half-thawed pockets that offer ideal bird-watching.
“It’s like there’s a whole world out there that I think a lot of people have no idea,” Gibson said.
At Westchester alone, as he crunched through icy patches and soft, wet soil, he pointed to two kinds of goldeneyes (common goldeneyes and the more unique Barrow’s goldeneyes), green-winged teals (a single one had first been reported there the day before, but the teals were in a group of about 10 last Sunday) as well as a gadwall, a bufflehead and a trumpeter swan.
“If you look out there, it’s hopping,” Gibson said. “There are tons and tons of ducks.”
Low-cost and close to home
Birding is a low-cost activity that can be done close to home, making it an attractive pastime in the era of COVID-19. Everything jolted to a halt last year, so people looked out their windows and noticed birds, said Natalie Dawson, executive director of Audubon Alaska, a nonprofit conservation group.
“That’s what is cool about birding in general, but what was particularly illuminating during the pandemic is that it’s an activity that’s accessible to anybody at any stage,” Dawson said.
A birding newbie doesn’t necessarily need any serious or expensive gear to enjoy it, Dawson said. You don’t even have to stress about identifying species or calls.
And in Anchorage, “the birding is wonderful,” Gibson said.
Some places in the Lower 48 might have a bigger array of bird species, but the common birds in northern latitudes are considered specialties elsewhere.
“Any time of year, no matter where you are, there’s some bird you could go out and try to find,” Gibson said.
Local birders say this is an especially good time for birding in and around Anchorage. The key is just getting out of the house and paying attention.
Gibson spent most of a recent Sunday morning showing a couple of Daily News reporters the city through the binoculars of an experienced birder. He was especially keen on seeing one bird that eluded him — a rough-legged hawk, which had been spotted near the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Stomping through newly thawed ground, past a wandering moose and along lingering ice spots, Gibson looked around. But the hawk never showed.
No matter — in the meantime, a group of lapland longspurs glided through the sky above in one mass, diving out of view before reappearing and turning swiftly against the clouds.
Gibson ended the morning tour in the thawing mud of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge in South Anchorage, where two sandhill cranes danced. They have a bugle-like call, and their arrival is a sure sign of spring, he said.
He sloshed ahead.
“Here’s another one coming in,” Gibson noted as a third crane called and approached the two from above.
Later, all three took off together, batting their wings and soaring against a backdrop of the Chugach Mountains.
While the city thaws after a long winter, birds of all shapes and sizes are making their way north. As the days grow longer, Anchorage residents have an opportunity to spot all of the newcomers.
“Every time you see something for the first time of the year, it’s almost like you’re seeing it for the first time in your life,” Gibson said. “Even the common birds are exciting.”
Curious about getting into birding? Here are some ways to get started, along with a list of some birds you may come across in Anchorage right now.
• A field guide (Gibson recommends one from Sibley’s or National Geographic).
• The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s online guide to Alaska birds.
• An app like E-Bird for help in recording and finding spots where birds are arriving.
• A checklist, like the one provided by the Anchorage Audubon Society.