The 121st Christmas Bird Count in Alaska

Given the universal awareness and necessary precautions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic mandated by many communities, as well as recommended by the National Audubon Society, I had anticipated direct effects on the numbers of individual birds counted and participation, and possibly even the number of species found - I was wrong. Yes, only 33 counts were performed in the Alaska region, the fewest in 20 years, with at least five long-term counts opting to cancel completely. Additionally, at least seven of the completed counts mentioned special efforts implemented to limit the size of field parties and new recruits. However, despite these factors it seems folks were simply ready to get out and count birds, as the total participation (field plus feeder watchers) across the region matched the 5-year running average, and 12 counts even experienced record numbers of volunteers. So not surprisingly the total number of species and individual birds tallied more-or-less matched the 5-year running averages. But on the other hand, I managed to get all the region counts edited and summarized before the Stanley Cup finals! 

For the Alaska region, the 33 counts tallied 148 species (plus 11 during the count weeks, cw) and 134,433 individual birds (both close to the 5-year running averages), with 1159 total participants. The Kodiak count topped all others in the State with 86 species (followed by Homer with 78); while Anchorage tallied both a record 24,489 individual birds (followed by Fairbanks with 15,678), and record 194 participants (followed by Fairbanks with 184) - for perspective, Anchorage and Fairbanks [where over half the State’s populace reside] together enlisted more participants than just over two-thirds of all the other counts combined.

In terms of distribution, 19 species were found in all four of the Alaska subregions (described below) including: Mallard, Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Spruce Grouse, Northern Goshawk, Bald Eagle, Rock Pigeon, Downy Woodpecker, Canada Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Common Raven [only species seen on all 33 Alaska counts], Black-capped Chickadee, Boreal Chickadee, American Robin, Snow Bunting, Dark-eyed Junco, Pine Grosbeak, Common Redpoll, and Pine Siskin. Further, nine species accounted for over half of the total individual birds tallied including: Mallard, Greater Scaup, Rock Sandpiper, Glaucous-winged Gull, Common Raven, Black-capped Chickadee, Bohemian Waxwing, Common Redpoll, and Pine Siskin.

At the other extreme, 30 species were represented by a single bird in the entire region (most mentioned in the subregion summaries below). Of these ‘singles’, two species were reported (with photographs) for the first time on any Alaska count: a Siberian Accentor and a Red-throated Pipit (cw) both at Homer. Additionally, five Parasitic Jaegers were reported at King Salmon-Naknek; I considered deleting this report as I am not aware of any jaegers ‘documented’ in Alaska during the winter (except for one Pomarine), and the submitted details [prepared several days after the fact] were ‘iffy’ at best.

Looking at the region in closer detail, eight counts were conducted in the south-coastal subregion, which extends from eastern Prince William Sound (Cordova), across the Cook Inlet-Kenai Peninsula (Anchorage, Eagle River, Homer, Seward, and Soldotna), to Kodiak Island (Kodiak and Narrow Cape-Kalsin Bay), where relatively ‘mild’ winter climate conditions prevail. These counts involved a near record 492 participants who tallied a near record 123 count day plus eight other count week species, and an above average 76,922 individual birds. Highlights for this area included: a Snow Goose* and Cackling Goose* at Kodiak (* = only one found on all the region counts), Eurasian Wigeon (cw) at Homer, 13† Northern Shovelers at Kodiak († = new subregion high count); 3 Hooded Mergansers at Kodiak, a Golden Eagle* at Narrow Cape-Kalsin Bay (cw), single Northern Harriers at Homer and Narrow Cape-Kalsin Bay (cw), an Ancient Murrelet*, Horned Puffin*, and Tufted Puffin* at Kodiak, a Snowy Owl* at Homer, 4† Northern Saw-whet Owls at Anchorage, a Swainson’s Thrush* (cw) and American Pipit* at Homer, a Cedar Waxwing* at Anchorage (cw), a Lapland Longspur* at Seward (cw), single Yellow-rumped Warblers at Homer and Anchorage (cw), a remarkable 7† White-throated Sparrows at Homer, 5† Lincoln’s Sparrows at Kodiak, a Brambling at Seward, and a Purple Finch* at Homer.

Ten counts were performed in the southeast ‘panhandle’ of Alaska (Chilkat, Glacier Bay, Haines, Juneau, Ketchikan, Mitkof Island, Sitka, Skagway, Tenakee Springs, and Wrangell). This subregion is characterized by generally mild but very wet maritime conditions – of note all three of the Alaska counts which specifically mentioned ‘bad’ weather as affecting their results were in this subregion; and a fourth count (Haines) was detrimentally affected by a deadly, heavy rain-induced landslide earlier in December. The 10 completed counts involved 254 participants who tallied 98 count day plus 16 count week species, and 30,298 individual birds – all of these metrics were well below the 5-year running averages [looks like weather was a factor]. Sitka produced the most species (65), Juneau the most individual birds (8352), Glacier Bay the most participants (51), and Juneau the highest number of ‘count week’ birds for the State (19). Highlights for this subregion included: a Wood Duck* at Sitka, Sooty Grouse* at Glacier Bay (cw), a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel* at Sitka, an American Coot* at Ketchikan, 84† Black Oystercatchers at Sitka, a Long-billed Dowitcher* at Juneau (cw), a Thick-billed Murre* at Sitka, single Western Screech-Owls (cw) at Mitkof Island and Sitka, a Northern Pygmy-Owl* at Wrangell, a Barred Owl* at Chilkat [question – no details], a Hermit Thrush* at Sitka, Brewer’s Blackbird* at Ketchikan, and a Brambling at Sitka (cw).

Thirteen counts were completed in the interior (Cantwell, Copper Center, Delta Junction, Denali National Park, Eagle, Fairbanks, Galena, Healy, Kenny Lake, and Trapper Creek-Talkeetna)  and western (Bethel, Nome, and Shageluk)  subregion, which covers the vast majority of Alaska and is characterized by drier and more extreme cold winter conditions (count day air temperatures at Eagle never got above -20 F). These 13 counts involved a near 5-year average 384 hardy souls who tallied a record 48 count day plus two other count week species, and record 21,260 individual birds (well exceeding the previous high of 12,893). Fairbanks again topped all others with most species (record 28), individual birds (record 15,678, by a long shot), and participants (record 183). Highlights for this subregion included: a Spectacled Eider* (cw) and Black Guillemot* at Nome, 65† Downy and 52† Hairy Woodpeckers, 170† Steller’s Jays, 1537† Black-capped and 463† Boreal chickadees, 55† Red-breasted Nuthatches, 1071† Bohemian Waxwings, and 412† Pine Grosbeaks all at Fairbanks, and a White-throated Sparrow at Bethel. Further, new high numbers of White-winged Crossbill were tallied on most of the counts in this subregion.

Finally, two counts were completed in the southwest subregion which includes the Alaska Peninsula (King Salmon-Naknek) and Aleutian Islands (Unalaska) – characterized by wet and windy maritime conditions. On these two counts, 29 participants tallied 59 count day plus nine other count week species, and 5953 individual birds. Unalaska had the most species (44), individual birds (4249), and participation (20). Highlights for this subregion included: 25† Trumpeter Swans and a Gyrfalcon* at King Salmon-Naknek, and an Orange-crowned Warbler* and Townsend’s Warbler* (cw) at Unalaska.



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