by Jeff Bouton
Winter Birding in Fairbanks, AK
Inspired by Wim Vader's continuing bird accounts from Tromsoe, N. Norway, I thought I'd give a brief account of winter birding here in Fairbanks, AK. While not as far north as Tromsoe (70*N), Fairbanks (65*N) does not have the the warming affects of the ocean and thus lacks the diversity of bird species. Low temperatures can often reach well below -40* F (last year near -60* F on New Years week), but this year we have been blessed by an incredibly mild season (comparatively) with a two day low of near -25* this past week. I'm not certain if it is El Nino, or what, but am not disappointed. As in Tromsoe, we suffer from very little light in winter. Today and the following two will be the shortest days on record with just over 3.5 hours of daylight. Official sunrise occurs just before 11:00 AM and official sunset is near 2:30 PM. Thus it is dark when we leave for work and dark when we return, making midweek birding a near impossibility, unless you are owling.
X-mas bird counts in Fairbanks have produced a total of 47 spp. over the years, but the average seen from year to year is close to 25 species of late. The last 5 year's count totals were: 22, 22, 29, 22, and 30 respectively. In the species list belowo those that are near annual are lower case, all others are capitalized.
Species list: Mallard, NORTHERN PINTAIL, NORTHERN SHOVELER, AMERICAN WIGEON, LESSER SCAUP, HARLEQUIN DUCK, Common Merganser, RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, Northern Goshawk, MERLIN, GYRFALCON, Spruce Grouse, WILLOW PTARMIGAN, ROCK PTARMIGAN, Ruffed Grouse, SHARP-TAILED GROUSE, AMERICAN COOT, Rock Dove, Great Horned Owl, SNOWY OWL, Northern Hawk Owl, GREAT GRAY OWL, BOREAL OWL, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE, Common Raven, Black-capped Chickadee, Boreal Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, BROWN CREEPER, GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLET, AMERICAN DIPPER, AMERICAN ROBIN, Bohemian Waxwing, Northern Shrike, AMERICAN TREE SPARROW, Dark-eyed Junco, RUSTIC BUNTING, SNOW BUNTING, GRAY-CROWNED ROSY FINCH, Pine Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbill, Common Redpoll, and Hoary Redpoll.
The waterfowl are seen from two locations generally: in open runs in the Chena River (caused by warm water from local power generation and hot springs) and in cooling ponds behind the Ft. Wainwright power plant. Raptors are generally scarce but around each year, it mostly depends on whether one is lucky enough to see them on count day. (Remember you only have 3.5 hours) Goshawk is the most common and Gyrfalcon is a not too distant second, even though CBC totals wouldn't confirm this.
All of the grouse and ptarmigan species can be found close by throughout the winter. Sharp-taileds and Willow Ptarm can be found on many of the smaller domes around town and in years like this year and the past right in town. Rock Ptarm generally require driving a ways out of town to get a little higher in elevation. The other two grouse are certainly present but tend to be less noticeable this time of year and are most often in well protected ravines. Birds recorded on CBC are most often seen along roadside at sunrise or sunset collecting gravel.
The Owls are more common than CBC totals reflect as well, I believe this is a result of few groups actually owling. The order ofo abundance would probably be GHOW and Boreal at the top, with N. Hawk following rather distantly, and Great Gray being far behind that. Snowy is strictly accidental. N. Hawk Owls daytime activity is the reason it appears more abundant than Boreal The woodpeckers are abundant, with Downy and Hairy regularly coming to suet feeders. Three-toeds are always around but require getting in to the trees and listening for them picking at the spruces.
The corvids are always present, with magpies being uncommon here in town. They are very common both South and East of Fairbanks though within two hours in either direction!
Both Chickadees are a common occurrence and are continuous at my feeders throughout the daylight hours. Each year there are many reports of possible Siberian Tits that go unconfirmed as well. I have chased a number of these over the years to no avail. There are rarely numerous individuals and the reports are often received late, but here is a history of confirmed reports and I wouldn't doubt it if this species was annual in smalll numbers. RB Nuthatch is annual in small numbers as well.
Robins occur rarely when berry crops are excellent, but Waxwings are certainly annual in small scattered groups. Northern Shrikes are probably annual, but scarce.
Any sparrow and or buntings are unusual except for Dark-eyed Juncos which are almost always recorded at one feeder somewhere around town. Four years ago a male Rustic Bunting was present daily for nearly 4 mos. at a local feeder, and last winter a male McKay's Bunting (first interior record) was found near 1 January and remained through March. As of yet, the annual zinger has yet to be found. Perhaps it will turn up on the CBC! Rosy Finches seem to be more coastal in AK and they are a rare occurrence here in the interior. The other winter finches are otherwise abundant to common at feeders and birch and spruce throughout the area. Birds around town at present:
I saw a Northern Shrike on the outskirts of town (in North Pole, AK to be exact!) two days ago. Ptarmigan are being seen commonly at lower elevations this year and I saw a flock of five Willows along the roadside at lunch yesterday. I've received second hand reports of two unusual to accidental birds this week with a Pine Siskin (generally south coastal) and a Common Loon along the River! Otherwise there is a small group of Mallards, and a few Com Mergs around. I've seen Horned Owls from my yard of late, but haven't heard of any other raptors being seen this week. When I went outside this morning near 10:00 AM I could already here white-winged crossbills calling in the dim pre-dawn light. By sunrise, I was surprised to find as many as thirty in the spruces surrounding my yard. There was also a small flock of redpolls about and by 11:30 they were at the feeders (mostly common at least two hoaries). My regular RB Nuthatch was actively defending her suet and was extremely vocal. As many as twenty chickadees of both Boreal and Black-capped were also busily coming and going with sunflower seeds. One male Pine Grosbeak made a brief appearance and Gray Jays were noisely calling nearby. As always at sunrise and sunset. Hundreds of Common Ravens were streaming overhead leaving the communal roost to the North and heading for the city of Fairbanks to forage at the landfills, and in fast food dumpsters mostly! One of my resident Downy woodpeckers made an appearance today, but I didn't notice whether the Hairies came around. I had good intentions and was going to go birding today, but alas I was busy with last minute x-mas details and the like. Before I knew it the day had come and gone again.
This was the busiest I had seen the foraging activities as of yet. It may have been caused by a combination of factors including the coldest temps of the year and by the continuing loss of foraging time from last weekend. Whatever the reasons it brightened my day to see all of these species and any week with 13 species seen without looking too hard is good for this time of year in my book. Since living here, I have learned to appreciate the birds so much more. I never before believed I could be so elated to see a Canada Goose or a Herring Gull, but the first of each of these species is a wonderful sight each spring. It signifies the return of all of the other species and for me is like the end of 5 months of holding my breath. Again thanks to Birdchat I can breathe a little easier this winter by vicariously birding with each of you.