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U.S.A. - ALASKA: Anchorage

Big Day (Bird Race)

19 May 1995

by Gordon J. Tans

Big Day Statistics:


We began to plan our 1995 Big Day when the snow was still piled deep on the ground. The best combination of tides, migration, and weekends dictated a May 19 count date. Although this was a few days earlier than we would have liked, the tides would be favorable both in Anchorage and Homer, unlike 1994. To try and break our record (and reach 110 some day?), we decided to start several hours earlier than in years past, beginning with owling at 1:30 a.m.

The weather was good on count day and our spirits were high. When we heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl as the first bird of the day, our spirits soared even higher. We had to wait an hour and five minutes, though, before we heard the next bird of the morning, a Hermit Thrush. It was about 3 a.m. when the chorus finally began up near Crow Creek Pass. By 4:15 a.m. we had a Great Horned Owl and a Dipper in the Portage valley, both of which can be trouble to find, so we were still feeling optimistic.

We went into Anchorage for the middle hours of the morning, and we slowly came realise that we were missing species here and there that we were really supposed to be seeing. Shore birding was slow. John's Park, a favorite spot for a wide variety of woodland birds, was quickly succumbing to the encroachment of a big new subdivision, and may not be worth a future stop. Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Bank Swallow, Brown Creeper, and other Anchorage regulars were missed. It seemed the early migrants left early and the late migrants hadn't come yet. Expected birds just weren't there. And Anchorage didn't produce any of those surprises that seem to appear every year, but that we don't count on. We were beginning to worry.

Because we had readjusted our schedule, we didn't know just how poorly we were doing compared to previous years until we left Anchorage and doubled back to Portage. At 12:15 p.m., when we left Portage the second time, and headed south on the Kenai Peninsula for Homer, we could finally compare our count directly to the same stage of the previous two years; it was distressing. We had only 73 species, 6 species behind our 1994 effort and ten behind 1993. We realized we might not even break 100, and surpassing our previous high of 104 was out of the question.

We made up some ground heading south on the Kenai Peninsula, and had good luck in Homer, adding four species we had not encountered in any of our previous three years, including Kittlitz's Murrelet on Kachemak Bay, and the most unexpected bird of the day, a Bar-tailed Godwit at the base of the Homer Spit. However, the good finish could not make up for the lackluster morning in Anchorage. Considering how far behind we were in Portage, we were actually pleased to end our day at about 10 p.m. with 102 species, only two below our two previous best efforts.

We continue to dream about what could be. In all four years we have seen a cumulative total of 137 species. We recorded a total of seven species this year that we had never previously encountered on a big day. But we missed 17 species we had seen on at least 2 out of our 3 previous counts, including 4 we had seen on all 3 previous efforts. Certainly our long-time goal of 110 species in a day without air transportation is possible. However, our experience this year underscores the truth that everything will have to come together just right in order to meet and exceed that goal. Like last year, I'm looking forward to the publication of the new tide book!

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