The 120th Audubon Christmas Bird Count was held Saturday, December 14, 2019. Thirty-two local bird counters were in the field with an additional seven “feeder watchers”, who kept track of birds visiting their bird feeders, were able to tally 13,780 birds of 80 species, a record number of species for the Homer count and beating last year’s record by nine species. Six additional species were also documented during count week (three days before and after the actual count day). Numbers of feeder watchers were up from previous years and helped achieve the high numbers. A list of counts for each species can be seen at the end of this post.
Three species were new to the Homer count and included the Sooty Shearwater, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, and Orange-crowned Warbler. The exceptionally warm fall is likely the key factor in delaying the migration of these species to more southern latitudes.
The most abundant bird species this year were the Pine Siskin (4,077), Mallard (1,937), and Rock Sandpipers (1,420). A good spruce cone crop this year is supporting large number of finches such as the Pine Siskin, White-winged Crossbill, and Pine Grosbeak, in comparison to recent years. Although large flock of American Robins has been common throughout Homer this fall, only 57 were tallied on this year’s count. It’s often easy to miss large flocks when trying to cover such a large area.
High Mallard numbers reflect the lack of ice in Beluga Slough, Beluga Lake and Mud Bay. These ducks typically winter on the south side of Kachemak Bay when the ice blocks access to feeding habits along the north shore. Rock Sandpipers, a winter resident of Kachemak Bay, were found in generally similar numbers as in previous years.
Over the last several years, there has been a downward trend in numbers of four species of seaducks in the nearshore waters of the count area. These seaducks include the Common Eider, Steller’s Eider, White-winged Scoter, and Surf Scoter. Primary factors in this negative trend are unknown.
A big thanks to all the participants out counting or watching feeders, and to the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center staff for the use of their facilities and helping with logistics for our count. And a special thanks to Dave Erikson who coordinated the count and compiled the results. It was A Great Day to Bird!
View or download the final 2019 Homer CBC list below:
Preliminary Shorebird Festival Summary and some great stories!!
Sunday morning during the Festival event at the lower platform at the end of the FAA Rd, a lynx crossed above the end of Beluga Lake heading toward the platform at the end of the Calvin and Coyle trail! A wonderful opportunity for folks to see a lynx–no one remembers ever seeing a lynx there before in spite of many wildlife viewers in that area over the years. (I am going to attach the video I was sent. I believe this was taken by Lisle Gwynn. I also do not have permission to send it so am on shaky ground there also. It is such a fantastic glimpse of wildlife right here in Homer! If someone else took it, please let me know and I will send out a correction.)
On previous days in that same area, a nesting TRUMPETER SWAN was seen chasing off groups of geese that rest in that area. On four occasions it was reported that the swan would chase the group of geese up into the air and then target one goose to follow. One version of a chase on Saturday said the swan was maybe five feet behind the goose for several circles above the lake, getting closer and closer (the swan with his mouth open at times), seemingly snapping at the tailfeathers of the goose, he said! Usually the chase then went out of sight, the swan returning a while later… and the goose? Some other birder might have seen what happened there or we’ll never know.
It seems interesting that there is a pair of nesting SONG SPARROWS on the top of Gull Island. Never been reported before. (Spit real estate at a premium, perhaps?)
There were 124 species seen during the four days of the Festival. There are still some reports trickling in, so this number may go up. Last minute additions: HORNED LARKS near the Harbor and POMARINE JAEGER and SOOTY SHERWATER at the Anchor River. Overall, there was only one warbler (YELLOW-RUMPED) seen and one owl (GREAT HORNED); no flycatchers, no eiders. A highlight for many was seeing several CASPIAN TERNS on Saturday in the Mud Bay/Lighthouse Village Platform area.
With the big dump of snow overnight, many of us began the day getting ourselves out of our driveways and into town to begin the CBC. Many of us were not confident that we would find very many birds for this year. Boy, were we wrong! We found 69 species, which is the most since I started keeping track in 2003. (Dave was going to check back further.) We have yet to hear from feeder watchers who may have picked up another species so we might possibly even break 70!
Thank goodness it didn’t snow during the day so the visibility was good, though with low clouds the day was short. We all had snow to walk through but the group that counted above town had way more. Not too cold and no wind for most of the areas.
Some really great birds (plus one unwelcome one): WHITE-THROATED SPARROW had never been seen on a Christmas Bird Count before here! Seen out East End Rd a ways. Was actually seen on a previous year, but accidentally left off our list.) ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRDS–four of them!! Were at Seaside Farms MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD–seen (I think) near the Gear shed (out E. End Rd.) RED-THROATED LOON–seen from Munson Pt (south of Bishop’s Beach) STELLERS EIDERS (2)–seen from Munson Pt (south of Bishop’s Beach); COMMMON EIDERS seen from the Spit SHORT-EARED OWL–seen out on the spit (alas) EUROPEAN STARLINGS–seen at Seaside Farms in with some robins BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS–120 seen in the Diamond Ridge/West Hill area (First ones seen this year!) AMERICAN ROBINS–a large flock of 100 in the area near Beluga Slough with one VARIED THRUSH in the group (So cheerful to keep encountering the robins and pretty in the snowy trees!)
A huge thank you to Dave Erikson who coordinated the CBC here for the 42nd consecutive year. And of course to IOVC to allowing us to use their beautiful facilities as a home base and for our potluck.
Don’t forget that if you see an unusual species in our Count Area in the next three days (Dec. 16th-18th) please call Dave Erikson (907-441-7931) or Lani (399-9477). When Count Week is over and Dave has everything added up, send he will compile a report about numbers, trends, comparisons, etc.
It was a Great Day to Bird and equally, it was a great day to be a birder!!
View or download the final 2018 Homer CBC list below:
Michelle Michaud talks about Golden-crowned Sparrows – the Kachemak Bay Birders “BIRD OF THE MONTH” for June, 2018 and the importance of keeping cats indoors – to protect the birds and other wildlife. For more information on the Golden-crowned Sparrow, check out our “Bird of the Month” page.
Bird Rhythms originally aired on KBBI on June 30, 2018 as part of the Kachemak Science monthly program.
There are 15 crane species in the world. Two of those species – the Sandhill Crane and Whooping Crane – breed in the United States. There are six subspecies of the Sandhill Crane: Greater, Lesser, Canadian, Mississippi, Florida, and Cuba. Our Homer Cranes are of the Lesser Sandhill Crane subspecies.
The Sandhill Crane is a member of the Gruidae family; and was formerly in the genus Grus, but was recently reclassified to the Antigone genus. The species remains the canadensis.
Range: There are two flyways for the Lesser Sandhill Crane: Central and Pacific.
The Central Flyway population spends summers in Canada, northern Alaska, and the Siberian Peninsula; overwintering in Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The summer breeding grounds for the Pacific Flyway population is Southcentral Alaska (including Homer) and along the Alaska Peninsula. This population overwinters in the Central Valley of California – Sacramento area.
Source: International Crane Foundation.
Alaska Range Map
Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Characteristics: Cranes are large, wading birds with long necks and legs, and a characteristic feathered tail bonnet, red crown, and long menacing beak. Their legs are black, and their plumage varies from shades of grey, brown, and rust. Juveniles have cinnamon-brown feathers and lack the red crown.
Lesser Sandhill Cranes typically weigh around 7.5 lbs and reach a shoulder height of 34-48 inches. Males and females are generally indistinguishable; here’s a tip: when giving an alert call or territorial call the males bring their head back 90 degrees (beak straight up in the air), while the female brings her head back only about 45 degrees (See photo below).
Lesser Sandhill Cranes have an impressive wingspan of 6-8 feet. When spotted flying overhead, look for slow rolling downbeats, and quick upbeats of those large wings. You can generally tell when cranes are ready to fly as they may show agitation, ‘crane’ their neck, and then take a few steps prior to taking off.
In the wild, a crane that survives the first year, generally has a life span of around 20-30 years. Cranes do not begin breeding until around four years of age.
Cranes use an iron oxide mud to paint their feathers. Painting, is believed to help camouflage the cranes from predators especially while the crane is on the nest. The crane will take a bundle of grass and dip it in the mud and then apply the mud to its feathers.
Preferred Habitat: Cranes inhabit a variety of open wetland and upland habitats for nesting and loafing. For roosting, cranes seek out wet areas or islands, which are safer from predators.
Crane Display: Cranes have a variety of display postures to signal different activities, including:
When to fly
Attack and threat
Receptivity to breeding
And, how we enjoy watching cranes dance, especially during courtships as they jump and hop while spreading their wings, with an animated bowing to another crane – often like mirror images.
Want to learn more about Sandhill Crane displays? Check out the Sandhill Crane Display Dictionary: What Cranes Say with Their Body Language, by Yunker Happ. Go to: www.AlaskaSandhillCrane.com This field pamphlet is available at the Homer Bookstore, the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, or Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.
Reproduction: Cranes form pair bonds and mate for life (divorce does happen and a crane that loses a mate will bond again). Breeding begins around four years of age. They have low reproductive rates, in part, due to being long-lived birds.
Breeding Season: In the Homer area, the breeding season begins soon after the long-anticipated arrival of the cranes in late April/early May.
Nesting: The nest is nothing fancy, the main criteria is camouflage. Cranes are ground nesters, building simple nests of dry grasses and feathers, in the shape of a shallow depression.
The preferred nest site is an area protected from predators, with a preference for wetlands and islands. However, cranes in the Homer area haven’t read the memo and are found nesting in upland areas as well. A three-year crane nesting survey of the Homer Area, from 2011-2013, found 30 known nesting pairs and the probability that more remote nests were never reported or found.
A master of camouflage – look carefully above the piece of wood on the lower right side of the photo.
Eggs and Incubation: The female generally lays two eggs, and if a crane pair experiences nest disturbance/abandonment early in the incubation period, they may nest again and lay additional eggs. Chicks hatch within 30 days.
Both parents incubate the eggs, however, the male’s primary task is to maintain the integrity of the territory. Incubating pairs trade places about every two hours during daylight hours. This gives each bird a chance to stretch, exercise, and feed. At night, the female incubates while the male stands guard. The male is often the first to feed the chicks.
The photos below show various crane nests; one with an egg; one with egg shell fragments (all photos by Michelle Michaud).
Nesting success is often dependent on habitat selection. Egg loss can be due to abandonment, or predation (eagles, ravens, crows, gulls, dogs, coyotes, and lynx), or being stepped on by moose.
Prior to fledging, the colt is flightless and very susceptible to predation. Colt loss can be due to a number of factors: predation, especially by eagles and dogs, lack of food, or parental neglect; or exceptionally bad weather, like wind and rain or snow in early spring. Photos by Nina Faust.
Fledging: Colts fledge within 60-70 days. They stay with their parents for 9-10 months. When the parents return to the breeding grounds, the adults chase off the colts to start a new family. These colts have now gained the red coloring on their heads, as well as the yellow eyes of an adult, and will join a group of non-breeding subadults — the crane equivalent of a roaming band of juveniles.
Not all crane colts survive to fledging. In Homer in 2017, 29 known breeding pairs produced 54 colts, of which only 34 colts fledged.
Food Preferences: Cranes are omnivores – eating frogs, voles, shrews, insects, bulbs, seeds, berries, and even baby ducklings.
Homer cranes are habituated to humans, especially when fed whole or cracked corn. Such feeding, however, is not necessary. There is sufficient food available in the wild for the cranes to obtain the nutrients needed for growth and survival. Feeding Cranes in an urban setting can be detrimental to the crane as it exposes them to predators, especially dogs and eagles. The urban habitat often lacks good nesting sites and natural sources of protein necessary for chick development. Other urban hazards affecting crane mortality include collisions with electrical power lines and vehicles, attacks by roaming neighborhood dogs, and poisoning from pesticides used on lawns. Also cranes can become aggressive protecting their young and can injure pets or humans.
Roosting: Cranes roost in large flocks, generally in shallow bodies of water to avoid predation. Cranes with colts that have yet to fledge roost separately, generally near the nest site (within their breeding territory).
Population Estimate: According to Kachemak Crane Watch, the Sandhill Crane population in the Homer Area (Anchor Point south to Kachemak Bay) is stable at around 200-250 individuals recorded annually.
Migration: In 2008, a study sponsored by Kachemak Crane Watch and conducted by the International Crane Foundation, sought to discover the migration route and wintering grounds of Homer area Sandhill Cranes. Ten (10) cranes were captured and fitted with satellite and radio transmitters. The study revealed several key findings: migration route, where the cranes winter (Central Valley of California), amount of time needed to reach their breeding and wintering grounds, and where they stopped during migration to refuel (See Figure 1 below). The journey from Homer to the Central Valley of California is approximately 2,400 miles – one way! The cranes take approximately one month during the fall migration to reach the Central Valley of California and approximately two months during spring migration return to Homer. They may spend up to a week or more at a staging area along the route in order to “refuel” for the long journey.
Vocalizations: Sandhill Cranes have several calls, but the most distinctive is the unison call – a loud, resonant bugle.
Listen now to the unison call
Threats: Habitat loss is a primary threat – loss of wetlands, grasslands and agricultural fields being developed, conflicts with agriculture, afforestation (trees taking over grasslands), conflicts with living in urban areas. Other threats include; drought, predation, impacts with vehicles, pesticide use on lawns and gardens, and collisions with power lines.
Hunting: Sandhill Cranes are hunted in Alaska for sport and subsistence, although they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Hunting season begins in September, prior to migration. A number of other states also allow hunting of Sandhill Cranes, including Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Sandhill Crane chicks are called “colts”.
Three pairs of Sandhill Cranes breed in Beluga Slough. One pair breeds near the boardwalk trail by the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. You can watch this pair raise their colt(s) during the summer months.
Kachemak Crane Watch co-founder Nina Faust is an accomplished videographer of Homer Sandhill Cranes. Nina produced a wonderful video called “Raising Kid Colt: A Story of a Young Sandhill Crane.” You will experience, up close, the intimate world of a Sandhill Crane’s family life, which includes seldom-seen perspectives of raising crane colts, as well as a progression of colt development over the summer. You can check out all her crane videos by going to the Kachemak Crane Watch website: cranewatch.org.
Prior to fall migration, cranes will begin gathering in large groups. When the September weather conditions present a high pressure bringing upper air currents from the northwest, the cranes will circle the sky – called ‘kettling’ and the gathering group will then head towards their wintering grounds – a spectacle to see.
Our Homer Cranes typically migrate south by the middle of September. You can enjoy the nightly “fly-in” of cranes at Beluga Slough as they begin to gather prior to migration.
The Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival (Fairbanks) is held every year in late August. This three-day event features field trips, workshops, and a great opportunity to see and learn more about Sandhill Cranes.
A crane fossil was found in Nebraska dating from the Pliocene period (5.3-2.6 million years ago). The fossil appears structurally identical to the modern Sandhill Crane. That would make the Sandhill Crane one of the oldest known bird species!
Conservation Status: The Sandhill Crane is a species of Least Concern, with populations generally increasing. Of concern is habitat loss and drought in California’s Central Valley, which significantly affects the Pacific Flyway population of Sandhill Cranes. The Pacific Flyway population is much smaller (approximately 20,000 birds) than the Central Flyway population (approximately 450,000 birds). The Central Flyway population are those cranes that make their way north through the Platte River in Nebraska.
In Homer, Kachemak Crane Watch (KCW) is dedicated to the protection of Sandhill Cranes and their habitat in the Kachemak Bay area.
The 2018 breeding season is fast approaching. Become a “Citizen Scientist”- KCW has been monitoring the Homer area crane population for over 15 years with the help of citizen scientists. With your help, KCW seeks information on:
distribution and abundance of cranes from Anchor Point to the head of Kachemak Bay;
nests and colts (chicks);
arrival and departure dates; and
mortality due to eagle predation, dogs, and other causes.
Report your observations to Kachemak Crane Watch at 907-235-6262 or email report@ cranewatch.org.
Crane Species in Alaska: Only the Lesser Sandhill Crane subspecies is found in Alaska.
Welcome to “Bird of the Month”. Each month we will be presenting a different bird species. We hope you enjoy it.
The Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is the smallest North American woodpecker, weighing in at around 1.0 ounce (yes, that’s right – ounce), and only 6.75 inches in length. In comparison, the Hairy Woodpecker, which is most often confused with the Downy Woodpecker, and can also be found in the Homer Area, weighs in at around 2.3 to 2.5 ounces, and measures 9.25 inches in length. The Hairy Woodpecker has a longer, sharper bill, and lacks the black spots on the white outer tail feathers that are found on the Downy.
The Downy Woodpecker can be found and enjoyed in every state. In Homer, you want to search for the Downy Woodpecker in forested areas – after all, woodpeckers like trees, but remember, don’t ignore the small branches on bushes for the Downy.
Characteristics: Both male and female of the species are black and white, however, the male is distinguished from the female with the presence of a red patch on the back of its head. Downy Woodpeckers pair-bond and are considered monogamous, however, during the non-breeding season, the pair may live alone.
Preferred Habitat: The habitat preferences of the Downy Woodpecker are less specialized than that of the Hairy Woodpecker. The Downy is generally found in open woodlands (especially deciduous trees – think Aspen and Birch – and brushy or weedy edges). They can also be frequently found in urban areas as a popular presence at a bird feeder or within city parks, backyards, and vacant wooded lots.
If you see a small black and white woodpecker on a low bush it is a Downy Woodpecker.
Breeding Season: The breeding season begins in early April in the southern United States and up to late May in the northern portion of its range – waiting for spring, just like us.
Nesting: Downy Woodpeckers are cavity nesters, utilizing a dead tree to excavate a cavity. The cavity is generally 8-12 inches deep and takes the pair 13-20 days to excavate.
Eggs and Incubation: Between 3-6 eggs are laid (although normally 4-5). Both pair will incubate the eggs, with the male assigned night duty. Incubation lasts around 12 days. The pair will typically fledge one brood per year.
Fledging: Both parents feed the young, with the young fledging within 20-22 days. Even following fledgling, the young depend upon their parents for up to three additional weeks for food.
Food Preferences: The Downy forages for insects, larva, and seeds. Have a Downy in your area and want a closer look, then put out a suet feeder and chances are a Downy will come to grace your feeder.
Feeding Methodology: The Downy feeds by an acrobatic ability to cling to tree trunks and branches, utilizing its specialized feet and tail feathers. The Downy can explore for insects along branches the size of twigs. Remember they only weigh an ounce.
The Downy works its way up a tree trunk in a series of rapid, jerky, stop-and-go movements. It can often be seen hanging upside down. The males tend to feed in the tops of trees on small diameter branches, while females feed midlevel or lower on large diameter branches.
Roosting: Downy Woodpeckers roost in tree cavities.
Migration: Downy Woodpeckers are permanent residents meaning they do not migrate, although there may be some movement in the winter with birds at higher elevations moving to lower elevations.
Want to see a Downy Woodpecker? Then you are in luck as the Downy Woodpecker can be found year-round in the Homer area.
Song: Sorry, no song. After all, Downy Woodpeckers are not Passerines, which are our songbirds. The Downy is a drummer.
Call: The call is a sharp “pik” sound. The call may vary in pitch and volume.
Drumming: While drumming is persistent, but there is a lag time of 10-15 seconds between drum sequences.
Even if the Downy doesn’t sing, who doesn’t get excited when hearing a woodpecker drumming and then anxiously looking for the source?
The Downy Woodpecker got its name due to its soft, downy plumage. Its scientific species name “pubescens” means “having hair-like feathers or “with hair of puberty”.
A group of woodpeckers is called a “descent” or “drumming”.
Downy Woodpeckers can drill in dead trees or limbs as small as 4 inches around, so they can live in a far wider range of habitats than other woodpeckers, and thus are not dependent on larger trees.
Conservation Status: The ‘Good News’ – the Downy Woodpecker is considered a species of Least Concern. The Downy Woodpecker is doing well in Alaska and does not appear on Audubon Alaska’s 2017 Watch List.
Woodpecker Species in Alaska: Other Woodpecker species found in the Homer area include the Hairy Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, and the Northern Flicker. The last three, are uncommon to rare in the Homer area, but you may have been one of the fortunate birders to have seen the Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers in the Homer area this past winter.