I recently traveled to Kotzebue, Alaska to represent the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges at four Kotzebue Spring Birding events (May 20-22, 2016). I did this once before – four years ago. I enjoyed returning to see what changes had occurred in terms of both the community and the bird life. One thing that was evident was that there was a lot less ice on the lagoon, on the tundra, and wetlands.
Here are some google earth images of Alaska and Kotzebue area. Kotzebue is located above the Arctic Circle.
Kotzebue is an Inupiat community located on a peninsula in northwestern Alaska. The population is around 3,200 hardy souls (2010 Census). The following are some photos of the community.
Gasoline is $6.09 per gallon. In the store, bananas were $2.99 per pound. Everything here is expensive. They receive a lot of their goods by airplane and barge, although fuel is delivered, I am told, once a year by barge. So you can imagine why the cost for fuel is high.
The amount of water on the lagoon, the lack of snow on the hillsides, and the lack of ice adjacent to the shoreline were not unexpected due to the warm winter Alaska endured in 2015-2016. One thing about the ice cover on the lakes and in the lagoons, is that it forces the bird life to use what open water is available. If the ice is out, more water is available (and more feeding opportunities) for the birds, but it makes bird watching more difficult. But first and foremost is the interest of the bird. Birding comes second. I’m not sure all birders agree with that viewpoint.
I arrived Wednesday evening (May 18) and was met at the airport by the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge deputy manager David Zabriskie. David took me to the USFWS bunkhouse, which is now located above their offices. The small one-bedroom apartment was quite nice. The refuge staff gave me a vehicle to use while here and after a dinner of Chicken Yellow Curry at the Empress Restaurant, I jumped into the vehicle and headed off on the approximately 9 mile loop road to find what birds had already arrived.
Thursday – May 19
Around 8:30 am, I met Masaki Mizushima, a young park ranger with the National Park Service. We drove the loop road to decide where we would stop during our four events: Friday at 7:00 pm, Saturday at 8:00 am and again at 4:00 pm, and then on Sunday at 4:00 pm. We got to see some great birds, including a Rusty Blackbird and both the Parasitic Jaeger and the Long-tailed Jaeger. It is always fun to be around someone who hasn’t seen a particular bird before. Masaki only arrived in Kotzebue last September, when most of the breeding birds would have already left for points south. He is an enthusiastic birder and fun to be around.
After I dropped Masaki off at the NPS building, I headed back to the USFWS building to meet Susan Georgette, the refuge manager. We went to her house for lunch and then checked out another possible birding spot. Glad we did as I got to see a Ruddy Turnstone, and I stopped counting the Tundra Swans when I reached 70. I suspect there may have been around 100 swans in the lagoon area.
After lunch I went back to the bunkhouse for a short nap and to finish reading a book. Around 6:00 pm, I headed back out to see what birds may have shown up – always something new this time of year. Also, the wind had died down considerably. It was nasty cold in the morning, with temperatures around 30 degrees. By 6:00 pm, the temperatures had arisen to over 40 degrees and it felt nice outside (so long as the wind wasn’t blowing too hard). Lots of daylight above the Arctic Circle!
I took about 3 hours checking out the birds (and photographing a few). I took the road leading to the U.S. Air Force Long Range Radar Dome (or as locals call it – the Golf Ball) to see what birds might be there. It was pretty quiet bird wise, but at the end of the road I stopped for some Redpolls and was rewarded with a beautiful Short-eared Owl. This is my favorite owl. I watched it glide across the road and over the side of the bluff and out of view.
Friday – May 20
In the morning I went to check out the cemetery and an adjacent area as this is where the Bluethroat has been seen in previous years. Despite the early arrival of some species, this is one species that hasn’t arrived yet. At least I didn’t see or hear the species. This would be a life bird for me.
When I reached the top of the hill, I had a great view of the town below. I decided to count the number of Tundra Swans on the lagoon near town – there were at least 135 swans. WOW!!! What a site. This must be a staging area before they head out into the tundra to nest.
Some wildflowers were also starting to spring up in the tundra.
I also spent time watching Semi-palmated Sandpipers (SESA). The shorebird flies up into the air, vocalizing at it goes, then hovering. The call sounds sort of like a motor boat engine running. Fun to watch. As I was walking on a road through the tundra I came upon a pair of SESAs and worried that if they decided to nest in the general area, use of the area by locals would disturb the nest site. People let their dogs run free along the road. And what dog stays on the road?
I saw my first Pacific Golden Plover today. A pair landed in a wetland alongside the road, just past the second bridge near town. Also here were Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Pectoral Sandpipers. At least one male Pectoral Sandpiper was chasing a female, with his tail in the air. The male bends forward as it chases the female.
For our first birding event we had 18 people attend. Not a bad showing for the small community of Kotzebue. The National Park Service/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsored event included popcorn, specialty breads (e.g., pumpkin), and hot drinks (coffee, hot chocolate, and cider) for the participants. The tour was a cool (low 40s), overcast evening, with occasional light rain.
We saw 27 different species. Surprisingly absent were the songbirds. Maybe the rain kept them hidden – warm and safe. The highlight for me and several others were two pairs of Red-throated Loons performing their courtship dance. The birds would curve their necks into a question mark shape and then move through the water in unison.
We also had Canvasbacks and Redheads, which I didn’t expect to see. According to the Western Sibley Bird Guide, Kotzebue is outside of these birds’ range. Several new birds for the trip were the Black Scoter and the Black Turnstone.
Saturday – May 21
We had both a morning event (8:00-10:00 am) and an afternoon event (4:00-6:00 pm). The morning was overcast with a light rain. Only four hardy souls showed up, but we did see some great birds. New birds for the trips included a Wilson’s Warbler singing its heart out in the willow trees, and a Black-bellied Plover. We also had a Parasitic Jaeger, which was new for the spring trips.
In the afternoon, the rain stayed away for most of the two hours. We started out with about 14 people, of which five were interested birders. The others belonged to a group of persons with disabilities. They enjoyed seeing the big birds, such as the Tundra Swans, as well as partaking of the refreshments of donuts, cookies, pumpkin bread, popcorn, and hot drinks. Personally I enjoyed them also – both the birds and the refreshments.
We were treated to a bird rarely found so far north – a Killdeer. This bird was spotted by a great birder who works at the hospital. She spotted the bird in a small pond near the airport. So off we went in search of the bird, spotting it easily.
Other new birds observed during the tours included a Short-eared Owl, which was flying over the tundra. Best views were through the scope. Unfortunately not all people got to see it. We also saw several Mallards. I know, Mallard so what, right? Well they don’t get a lot of Mallards around here so nice to see them. We also had a Western Sandpiper and two Lesser Scaups. Both new birds for the birding events.
Sunday – May 22
This morning, while sunny, there was a cold wind blowing from the southeast. Brrrr. Cold even to have the window open in the FWS vehicle I was driving. Decided to go out once more on my own in search of the Bluethroat. No luck. Guess I am too early. Not sure how common the bird is here even during the summer. May need to go to Nome to find it.
I saw a total of 34 different species over a 4 hour period of time. No new birds, but there were a lot more Savannah Sparrows and Wilson’s Warblers present than when I first arrived Thursday evening. Late this afternoon we have our final bird outing. I think I will wear my long underwear.
For our final birding event we had six people join us, two who had been on earlier trips. I love the enthusiasm of the participants when seeing a new bird (for them) for the first time – like a Red-throated Loon or a Whimbrel. We had both birds on our evening tour. We didn’t have as many birds as other trips the past few days, but the weather was nice (although windy at times, which can bring a chill to the bones). Maybe the birds decided to take advantage of the winds and the warm, sunny weather, and head north. I suspect there is still a lot of ground to cover for some of these birds. Our total species count for the evening was 24 species.
In total we saw 44 different species of birds on our four tours. Not too bad. I had a great time here and will miss the people and the birds.
Monday – May 23
I caught an early plane and headed back home to Homer. When I arrived I was surprised at how green it had become in the six days I was away.
It’s Always a Great Day to Bird