A visual shock hit me as I passed my kitchen window earlier this fall. The shadow of a medium-sized bird flew into an elderberry bush and onto a fence overlooking my back deck, leaving me mesmerized by a species I had never seen before anywhere.
The bird stood erect and alert, almost regal. Sleek and streamlined, its coloration was distinct and striking: gray overall body, black wings and tail with white markings and a long, pointed black bill. Years ago, I had seen photographs of it in a book by Candace Savage called "Bird Brains."
Just as quickly as I had glanced out the window, the bird flew off and my first thought was to grab my Sibley guide while holding the image in my mind. The bird was about the size of a Steller's jay, but more slender and with a slightly longer beak.
Could it be? It can't be a Clark's nutcracker here in Alaska, could it? That bird is mostly found in the Rocky Mountains and only as far north as southwestern Canada.
In those few seconds, I realized that its bill seemed to be that of a corvid. However, images of other possibilities suggested themselves: Gray jay? No, the jay's bill is shorter. Northern Shrike? Nope, the shrike, also known as a butcher bird, has a hook on the end of his bill. Besides, I've seen them before and know the difference. How about a Townsend's Solitaire, as someone from Audubon suggested? No to that, too. The Solitaire has a shorter bill and a longer tail. And, besides, the Sibley guide doesn't include Anchorage in range of this bird, which should have migrated south by now.
What also struck me was the bird's gaze over my deck. I admit, I toss out black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts this time of year, a few at a time to make sure they're quickly eaten and don't attract bears, hoping birds with less food now that the summer is over have an easier time. Like most thrushes, the Solitaire eats mostly insects and berries and could care less what's on my deck.
So, could it be that the Clark's nutcracker has extended its range into Alaska? Or, as an expert birder asked, could this particular bird have a form of "migration dyslexia" and headed northwest instead of southeast? Darker gray than the guide photo, I wondered if this bird was a juvenile. Which implies that he may have been too young to know what he was doing.
Clark's Nutcracker is a member of the family Corvidae which includes jays, magpies, ravens and crows. One of the smartest bird families on the planet and perhaps some of the most observed from our windows.
All of them, except the crow, frequent my backyard during the colder months, and I can sometimes identify individuals.
Every winter, I am amazed at the tenacity of Alaska's resident birds. I have no idea how the chickadees are so capable of survival; their tiny size means that they require lots of food to maintain body heat. They and the red-breasted nuthatches they hang out with store seeds in tiny tree crevices.
Redpolls manage to hold their own; they are uniquely suited to a harsh winter with an enlarged esophagus that allows them to store and digest seed while they snooze during long, chilly nights.
But the corvids captivate me most by the way they adapt to our human environment. They have survived for ages without help from our tossed-away food, without daytime dumpster diving. When they do find a little extra food, they often cache it away for future use, exactly what the Steller's jays and magpies do on my back deck.
The Clark's Nutcracker is at the top of the heap when it comes to caching food. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, this bird can cache up to 33,000 coniferous seeds and has the ability to locate 7,500 individual storage sites. With its large sublingual pouch, it can carry up to 95 seeds at a time. When necessary, it can locate the seed in deep snow. Breeding season begins at high elevations long before the last snow melt. So I think it's possible for this species to survive quite well in Alaska.
If it is the case that the Clark's Nutcracker is extending its range into Alaska, could it be driven by climate change? Wild birds are one of the first harbingers of our changing environment, with some species occupying the unenvied status of canaries in the coal mine. What does this mean for our more northern location? For birds who have claimed Alaska as their territory for millennia? Will there be increased competition for food and terrain?
Or was this just what is known to birders as an "accidental" — a single bird that makes an unintended appearance for a limited time period? Who can say for sure?
If the bird was indeed an accidental, I hope he finds his way home.
Susan Valenti is an Anchorage birder and freelance writer.