UPDATE: As of 8 a.m. today (Friday), the Alaska Zoo reported only 12 more slots available for the Christmas Bird Count for Kids event happening Sunday. Call now if you’d like to register. 907 341-6463.
*This article originally appeared in the December 4 edition of the Alaska Dispatch News*
A little chickadee flittered past my living room window today, on its way to the feeder hanging in a nearby birch. Popping on and off a seed-filled platform, it was soon joined by a few redpolls that took up all the available space. Steller’s jays appeared at the party too, with peanuts they’d pilfered from the neighbors’ back deck stuffed lengthwise in their beaks. For a minute or two, my front yard was a feathered explosion of chattering and squawking until a passing delivery truck led to a quick exit.
Welcome to winter birding, neighborhood-style.
Alaska birds are a hardy lot; if not migrating thousands of miles between warmer climates or breeding and nesting grounds, they’re spending winter in the 49th state, eating and drinking and surviving harsh conditions. Several species brave Alaska’s winter weather, a fact of surprise to me, an amateur, who assumes everything that can fly south, does.
In reality, though, lots of birds spend winter right here at home, and it’s the job of organizations like the Audubon Society to find out which ones, how many, and where they congregate. The Christmas Bird Count has been a staple of early-winter bird data collection for more than a century, and, in Alaska, since 1941. Beth Peluso, communications manager for Audubon Alaska, explained it all to me in a nutshell (get it?).
“The idea is to count bird species and numbers within a set area, or “circle,’” she said. “Compilers, experts who have training on counting and recording, and observers set out on a given day to count all the birds they see and hear within that circle.” From there, information is transferred back to the Audubon Society’s data collection center, where it is compiled, compared, and used in research. Each circle is about 15 miles in diameter, so it takes a lot of keen eyes and ears to look and listen for birds not be eager to be found.
Kids, this is where you come in. Young people of school age and older are the perfect demographics to be excellent observers during Alaska’s Christmas Bird Count, scheduled this year for Saturday, Dec. 19. Kids, with their sharp senses and love of discovery, usually do well during bird counts, Peluso said, and it’s a great way to spend time outside.
There are rules, so data can be collected accurately and kids (and parents) know what to expect during the Christmas Bird Count. The Alaska Zoo has partnered with Audubon Alaska, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to sponsor a Christmas Bird Count for Kids at the zoo on Sunday (Dec. 6) from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. During a four-hour block of time, kids will learn how to be effective citizen scientists through observation and data collection, while taking in a plethora of facts about Alaska’s resident bird population. Everyone will have a chance to practice their newfound skills, and share what they see and hear on the zoo grounds. Pre-registration is required for this event because there’s pizza at the end, so call 907-341-6463 if you’d like to participate.
Can’t make it Sunday? Peluso says the next opportunity for young birders is the popular Backyard Bird Count Feb. 12-15. “Fill your feeders with thistle seeds, cracked sunflower seeds, and mixes without a lot of millet,” she says, and watch the birds flock to the most popular house on your block. Always remember to keep your feeder clean (just rinse with hot water) and dry, and hang only after the bears have hibernated for winter.
Look for small birds like chickadees, waxwings, crossbills, and redpolls, along with the cheeky jays and perhaps even a robin or two. Peluso said more robins are being spotted during bird counts than ever before, possibly due to the mild weather of late. A fairly rare Eurasian collared dove also has been showing up, she says, spotted as far north as Alaska’s Interior.
Sometimes, Christmas counters get lucky, and a larger bird, like an owl or eagle enters the observation circle, resulting in an interesting cacophony of hoots or calls and a plum entry in the data book.
I’ll admit that in the past, bird-watching has never been high on my list of outdoor recreational activities, nor would I have expected kids to take to it with enthusiasm. But, like many things, given the right amount of information, and with the right tools, birds and kids are both excellent reminders that something small should never be undervalued.
Basic birding guidelines for kids
• Dress appropriately. Birding requires lots of time being still, so make sure kids wear weatherproof layers, boots, hats, and mittens. Adding chemical hand warmers is a good idea too.
• Find good habitat. Birds love cover, so forested areas like Far North Bicentennial Park, the Campbell Creek Estuary, and along the Tony Knowles Trail in Anchorage are good places. In Fairbanks, try Creamer’s Field or along trails at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
• Be still. Yes, sitting still and quiet can be difficult for many kids, but once children realize that birds appear when we do not make noise, outcomes can be positive. Encourage kids to carry a sketch book or journal to mitigate the wiggles.
Carry good gear. A pair of binoculars is truly all you need to look for birds, but some people like spotting scopes (check www.birdwatching.com for ideas and price ranges) for an even better view. A birding book or map is a must for identifying birds and their habitats, and is available from Audubon Alaska.
• Respect other people. Keep group sizes small and your impacts low. This means if you are observing birds from a trail, step aside when other people come by, and pick up your gear or trash.
More birding tips and information is available at Audubon Alaska. (907) 276-7034.