It's a Great Day to Bird

Month: December 2014

Rock Sandpipers – Hardy Winter Birds

Many migrant birds ‘head south’ for the winter – think warmer climates…..  Rock Sandpipers (Calidris ptilocnemis) – are truly  hardy wintering shorebirds of Cook Inlet Alaska for they call Homer home for the winter – think freezing temps….. In Homer we enjoy flocks of up to several thousand Rock Sandpipers gathering at the banana belt of Homer serving as the ‘warmer climes’ migration spot.  A flock can reliably – okay almost always, be found hanging out at the Homer Boat Harbor during high tide when their feeding habitat is inundated with water.  Look for them, thousands stand out, along the northeastern side of the boat harbor.  Some are even doing the polar plunge, bathing in the water.  And its fun to watch them if you can withstand the cold, harsh winds and temperatures that can hit Homer at times.

Smaller flocks of Rock Sandpipers generally can be found at the Anchor River beach, foraging along the shoreline.  The best times to search for these hardy birds is October through December – takes a hardy birder to brave the weather.  But remember, timing is everything when it comes to birds.

Flock of Rock Sandpipers at Homer Boat Harbor

Flock of Rock Sandpipers at Homer Boat Harbor

Rock Sandpipers

Rock Sandpipers

Not all Rock Sandpipers call Cook Inlet home during the winter months. Rock Sandpipers can also be found wintering along the western coast of the United States from the Aleutian Islands to northern California, as well as British Columbia. Oh, and occasionally they have been found in China and Japan.

Did you know there are four subspecies of Rock Sandpipers? And we have occasion to get up to three subspecies in the Homer area: C.p.tschuktschorum, C.p.couesi, and C.p.Ptilocnemis during the winter months. The first two are hard to tell apart, however the third subspecies – c.p.ptilocnemis – is much lighter in color than the other two subspecies.

Rock Sandpipers on west side of Homer Spit

Rock Sandpipers on west side of Homer Spit



Rock Sandpipers at Anchor Point Beach


  • Winters farther north than any other North American shorebird – along rocky seacoasts, breakwaters, and mudflats.
  • Breed in grassy or mossy tundra in coastal or montane areas in Alaska and Russia.
  • Feeds on amphipods, small crustaceans, clams, snails, barnacles, seeds, berries, moss, algae, and marine worms.
  • The female lays 2-4 eggs in a nest in a depression in the ground.
  • Both parents incubate the eggs – about 20 days.
  • The chicks are precocial – leaving the nest and feeding themselves shortly after hatching.
  • Both parents care for the young.
  • The chicks fledge around 21 days old.
North American Range Map for Rock Sandpipers

North American Range Map for Rock Sandpipers

Shorebirds are one of my favorite species of birds so it is nice to have at least one shorebird species hanging around our area during the winter months.


(Cornell Lab of Ornithology – All About Birds:;;; and

115th Annual Christmas Bird Count

December 14th was the start of the 115th Annual National Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The count runs from 14 December to 5 January every year. According to the National Audubon Society, this count is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world, providing critical data on bird population trends.

The Homer CBC is December 20th, which just happens to be the day before the shortest day of the year. That means we will have around six (yes, six) hours of daylight (not counting dawn and dusk) to find as many different bird species as we can within the count area. What is the count area? A 15 mile diameter circle whose center is Mud Bay near the Homer Spit. Dave Erikson, the Homer CBC data compiler for the past 38 years, has divided up the count area to make it more manageable considering the short period of daylight available to find birds. Oh and weather makes a difference too. If we have a beautiful sunny day (rare), then we have more light available for finding birds. If it is snowing or raining (both are possible), then the birds become harder to find. Do you blame them?

What type of birds you will see during the Homer Christmas Bird Count will depend on the area you are assigned to help count.  If you are near the water, you may observe waterfowl, eagles, buntings, sandpipers, in addition to landbirds.  If you are inland, typical birds will be grosbeaks, chickadees, crossbills, juncos, jays, redpolls, and waxwings.  And we cannot forget the ubiquitous Northwestern Crows and Common Ravens.  Here are a few common birds you might see.

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak


Northwestern Crow


Harlequin Ducks

Black Scoters

Black Scoters

Not going to be in the Homer area for the Christmas Bird Count?  There are over 2300 different CBC count areas to choose from.  In 2012, I participated in the Christmas Bird Count at Midway National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). The main island – Sand Island – is where the count occurred and this count area was also divided up to make counting easier since we were on foot and bicycle. The birds observed included shorebirds, ducks, boobies, petrels, frigatebirds, terns, and of course albatross – all quite different from the birds observed in other Christmas Bird Counts in which I have participated. In my count area, my fellow counter and I counted 98 frigatebirds, which was quite a sight.  I was at Midway NWR as a part of team counting Laysan and Black-footed Albatross nests during a three week period in late December, early January.  This was an experience of a life-time.


Laysan Albatross


Short-tailed Albatross


Ruddy Turnstone


Laysan Duck


Red-footed Booby


Great Frigatebird

I have also participated in several Christmas Bird Counts in the Sedona Arizona area. It was fun to see birds such as Greater Roadrunners, Black-throated Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, and more – birds we typically do not see in Alaska. On these counts our group alone would generally spot 60 -80 different species. In Homer, generally 60 different species are observed in the entire count area, not just one’s little sub area. Our numbers would definitely be different if we did this count during the summer months when birds flock to Alaska to breed.  Here are a few photos of birds typically observed during the CBC in Arizona.


Northern Cardinal


Rufous-sided Towhee


Immature Cooper’s Hawk


Black-throated Sparrow

Don’t feel like leaving your home on a cold (or hot) day to participate? If you live within a count circle, you can count the birds at your feeder on count day and submit the information to your local CBC compiler. However, you do need to contact your local Compiler in advance of the count day to arrange to participate.  So who is your local compiler?  Check the National Audubon Society website and find a count area and compiler near you:

Wherever you are during the Christmas Bird Count season, I hope you will participate in this event. You don’t have to be an experienced birder. In fact, you may find you learn a lot from those on your team about the birds you are observing and counting, and have fun too.

If you will be in Homer during our Christmas Bird Count (December 20th), come to the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center (IOVC) at 8:30 am, where you will be assigned to a team. There will also be coffee, tea, and breakfast goodies to help get you started. At 4:30 pm the teams will meet back at the IOVC to report the birds observed, turn in tally sheets, and share a potluck dinner.

Have a great count and remember, it’s always a great day to bird.

Anchor River Beach on a Blustery Day

Birder’s Log December 2, 2014:  There is a phenomenon in Alaska called ‘cabin fever’ where a couple of days inside makes you stir crazy.  So, even though there were threatening skies and a not so favorable weather forecast we set out for the beach.  A favorite birding beach nearby is Anchor Point and true to its character, the wind was whipping and the waves ‘a rolling in.’

I visit the Anchor River beach monthly to conduct my COASST walk – a citizen science monitoring program to survey for dead birds along selected beaches (Jack calls it my dead bird walk).   While we didn’t find any dead birds we did find a dead Sea Otter pup.  We have found dead or dying adult sea otters on the beach before, but this is the first pup we have found.  We called USFWS and huddled in the wind to meet a team who would recover the otter for a necropsy study.


Anchor River parallels the beach with a dividing beach berm/spit of land – so, river birds on one side and surf birds on the other side.  Despite the wind, what a lovely day to be outside under mostly cloudy skies with ever-changing cloud formations being pushed around with strong winds of 15 to 20 miles per hour coming from the south.  At this beach we are used to the winds coming from the north, which makes for a cold walk out to the river mouth, but a warm walk back.  With winds from the south, the trek back was slow and cold (and we developed a slant to our walk).


We were surprised to see the waves coming at an angle to the beach, rather than straight on.  That is what strong, southerly winds can do.  And despite the fact the tide was going out, there wasn’t much room on the beach to walk with strong wave fingers coming at you.   Right out of the chute (or in this case the parking lot) we spotted a flock of over 50 Rock Sandpipers and a lone Sanderling (why is this bird still hanging around?) foraging at the surf line.




The low light in late fall, early winter creates conditions for some great cloud photos.




The industrious Northwestern Crows were busy feeding in the wrack line.  They are great fun to watch but don’t like us getting too close.  The crows, however, did not seem to mind our three-legged neighbor dog who has ‘adopted’ us and gets rewarded with beach runs.




Near the mouth of the Anchor River there were over 200 Glaucous-winged Gulls roosting, while another 30 or so were loafing and bathing in the water.  I was able to capture the classic photo of a flying mass of birds, in this case gulls as they took off.  These birds do not care for people getting too close either.  Unfortunately my survey requires walking near the high tide line, which in some cases results in birds being flushed, thus putting more stress on the birds.  I hate doing it, but need to follow protocol.

We also saw two flocks of Snow Buntings – around 60 or so birds – but they moved too quickly to be able to photograph as they made their way along the beach vegetation berm.  Also, there was a large flock of Common Goldeneye – 60 or so males and females – on the Anchor River.   They were very skittish.  I suspect they are or have been hunted as evidenced by the number of spent shotgun shells near the river.  Of course it probably doesn’t help having 2-3 eagles lurking in the trees.





And speaking of eagles, the Anchor River is always good for a Bald Eagle sighting, and we were not disappointed.  As we were walking down the beach we got excited when we saw this huge shape flying towards us – a stealth bomber like, immature Bald Eagle flew straight at us.  The bird looked HUGE.  Funny, but once it banked and headed out towards the water, its size decreased significantly.


Despite the cold, blustery day, it was another fun outing at the Anchor River.  You never know what you might find there.


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When I was posting my “Go Wild” Thanksgiving message I saw a notification that advertisements would be posted on my blog unless I wanted to pay $30.00 a year for an blog without ads.  I haven’t decided yet whether to pay the fee, but I want you to know that I do not personally support any of the advertisements that may appear with my blog.

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