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U.S.A. - ALASKA: Anchorage area

Big Day (Bird Race)

18 May 1996

by Gordon J. Tans

Big Day Statistics:

When we chose May 18 as the date for our 1996 Big Day effort we knew the early date meant we might miss several late migrants, but we hoped we might make it up by catching some lingering waterfowl or shorebirds. Sure enough, we missed the following late migrant passerines: Olive-sided Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Bank Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Swainson's Thrush, Yellow Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and Blackpoll Warbler, all of which might be considered big misses IF we had chosen a later date.

As we had hoped, the waterfowl were good, but the shorebirds were nothing less than spectacular. We sighted 23 species of waterfowl and 23 species of shorebirds, including five species we have never previously recorded: Black-bellied Plover, Pacific Golden-Plover, American Golden-Plover, Rock Sandpiper, and Dunlin.

With our goal of 110 still in mind, we decided to start with owling again. We heard none, and we could not find a Spruce Grouse, the other bird we needed early in the day. With those misses, and none of the late migrant passerines, our Anchorage area tally was just like last year -- alarmingly low.

Portage is the point where we leave the greater Anchorage area and head south on the Kenai Peninsula on the long drive to Homer. It serves as an important checkpoint to compare our progress with previous years. Our total at Portage this year was 73, equal to last year's dismal, all-time low of 73, and 10 behind our all-time best of 83. Understandably, most of the group was already resigned to another low total, and considered a new high out of question. However, we were leaving Portage one hour earlier than ever before -- a fact that would prove tremendously important later.

In theory, the long drive south on the Kenai Peninsula is a good place to find soaring or perching hawks. This year it finally proved true as we sighted both a Golden Eagle (very unusual) and a Sharp-shinned Hawk, two new species to our Big Day counts. We also picked up Tree Swallow and Gray Jay, species we had missed in Anchorage. We were becoming a little more hopeful as we neared Homer.

Once in Homer we promptly went to the Homer Spit, where the first addition to the day list was Eurasian Wigeon, another new species and the rarest of the day. After that we turned our efforts toward shorebirds. A very high tide, good weather, and the extra hour for birding paid off in a big way. The shorebird migration was favourably late (the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival of the weekend before had disappointingly low numbers of shorebirds), and in some areas the debris at the high tide line was literally crawling with shorebirds. The extra hour on the spit allowed us to visit new sites, and there we found the previously-mentioned three new plovers and Rock Sandpiper.

By the time we boarded the boat for birding on Kachemak Bay we were at 96 species. Although we missed the hoped for Kittlitz's Murrelet, we did get three more ducks in addition to the other pelagic species we normally get. Just like last year, the last bird of the day was a Black Oystercatcher on the same beach at Cohen Island. Was it perhaps the same individual as last year?

The total for the day was 105, a new record for our team. This was an extremely satisfying number, especially considering the gloomy mood that prevailed in mid-day. Over the course of five years we have now seen a cumulative total of 145 species. We recorded 8 species this year that we have not previously encountered on a Big Day. We missed only 6 species that we have seen on at least 3 out of our 4 previous counts, including 2 (Gadwall and Steller's Jay) we have seen on all 4 previous efforts. There are 27 species we have seen only one time.

I am more certain than ever that our long-time goal of 110 species in a day (without air transportation) is possible. Aside from luck, the timing of migration seems to be the greatest factor to consider. An early date improves chances of seeing waterfowl and shorebirds, but at the expense of missing songbirds that migrate later. Unfortunately, the exact timing of migration is unpredictable, and a variation of only a few days can have a major impact on our success.

All in all it was a beautiful day and lots of fun, but just wait 'til next year!

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