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Outdoors/Adventure

To birdwatchers' glee, millions of migratory shorebirds home in on Alaska

  • Author: Mike Campbell
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published May 5, 2015

The numbers are both huge and tiny.

Millions of migratory birds descend on Alaska this month to feed and breed. Some have flown thousands of miles to reach their summering grounds. Some weigh no more than an ounce or two.

Alaskans will celebrate their arrival with shorebird festivals beginning Thursday when the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer and the 25th annual Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival in Cordova kick off.

"I'm fond of all the of the bird festivals," said Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska, who has studied shorebirds and waterfowl across the 49th state. "They are great times. Homer has the greater diversity of birds. In Cordova, it's a little quieter and you can see some really big flocks of dunlin and sandpiper.

"It's always amazing when you can see a flock of 20,000 shorebirds."

Among the avian commuters stopping in Cordova to chow down along Hartney Bay are dunlins, black oystercatchers, greater yellowlegs, western sandpipers, and Wilson's snipe.

'Bundles of feathers and fat'

"You never quite know what's going to happen," Warnock said of the migratory bird festivals in Alaska. "They're such a harbinger of change. When you start learning about where they're coming from, it's amazing. These little bundles of feathers and fat can do these amazing flights."

How amazing?

Bar-tailed godwits are considered the distance migration champs, flying from Australia or New Zealand to Alaska. The 7,000-mile journey over the Pacific Ocean is considered the longest nonstop bird migration measured by ornithologists.

Many Hudsonian godwits fly north from Chile. "They're one of the real migration masters," noted Warnock. "They do this amazing mirgration, over the Pacific and then the center of the United States, most of it nonstop."

Like bar-tailed godwits, "Hudsonians make long non-stop flights both in the spring and fall," wrote Josh Engle in North American Birding. But unlike bar-taileds, southbound hudwits bypass much seemingly suitable habitat, choosing to fly up to seven days without stopping across North America, over (or east of) the Caribbean, not resting until (the Alaska population) has crossed the northern Andes and reached remote Amazonian Colombia."

And for speed, check out the small western sandpipers, one of the most abundant shorebirds in North American. Typically they hopscotch their way north, perhaps stopping in Alaska's Stikine River Delta or and the Yakutat Forelands. Some, though, fly from San Francisco Bay to the Copper River Delta in less than 48 hours, Warnock said.

'Huge boost for Homer'

Robbi Mixon, shorebird festival coordinator in Homer, said she expects about 1,000 people to show up for the festival. "It's a huge boost for Homer, really the opening of our tourist season.

In addition to all the bird watching, visitors can take in an ode to waterfowl with a multimedia presentation called "On the Wing."

Musical artist, Sunrise Kilcher-Sjoberg, explains that the show will feature both locals and a few new faces in a performance that will include dance, music, and poetry.

"I love doing things with people," Sunrise told the Homer Tribune. "I love for voices to be heard. There are lullabies about birds, there is jazz about birds. I've even heard a rap about birds."

Veteran birders say the best viewing comes during a three-hour window, from 90 minutes before high tide to 90 minutes after.

Most migratory birds' stay in Southcentral less than five days -- just long enough to refuel before winging their way to breeding grounds in western Alaska.

If you don't have the time or inclination to visit Homer or Cordova over the weekend, Anchorage residents have some bird-watching prospect on their doorstep.

Anchorage bird walks

Every Thursday in May, the Campbell Creek Science Center and Anchorage Audubon Society host a series of early-morning bird walks -- a chance for birders of all skill levels to catch sight and sound of migratory birds passing through Campbell Tract. The 6:30 a.m. start gives birders plenty of time to sneak in some viewing before work, and you're welcome to leave early if you must.

Those who stay until the end of the walk at 8:30 will be rewarded with hot cocoa and coffee in the science center.

These walks tend to be very low-key and relaxed, although there's always a chance that bad weather, bears, or moose will show up to make things interesting. If you have a spotting scope or binoculars, bring them. But leave your best birdsong impressions at home, because it's considered poor form to try and call the birds in. Fortunately, you'll be in the company of sharp-eyed experts who can not only point the birds out, but help you understand their life story. Anchorage Audubon has a great rundown on some of the best bird-watching spots in Alaska's biggest city.

Yakutat Tern Festival

If you live in Southeast, the four-day Yakutat Tern Festival celebrates not only one of the largest known breeding colonies of Aleutian Terns, but also the community's other natural and cultural resources; the celebration starts May 28. (yakutatternfestival.org)

And in Mat-Su, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's new $300,000 viewing tower, rising 30 feet above Reflections Lake off the Glenn Highway is open to birders (and people who just want to take in the view).

Geese, swans, and sandhill cranes are all early-season prospects if birders don't make too much noise clambering up the metal stairs.

"Thousands of motorists and citizens drive through the hay flats on the Glenn Highway every day," said Bill Wood, a board member with Alaskans for Palmer Hay Flats and a retired federal biologist. "Hundreds of thousands of trips are made through the refuge every year, and the beauty of the place is largely unknown."

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell@alaskadispatch.com. Lisa Maloney contributed to this report.

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