Shorebirds visit right on time

As if turning a switch, thousands of shorebirds arrived May 3, pushed north and west by a storm with winds up to 35 mph. Predictions that the peak of the migration would hit right during the 25th annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival May 4-7 proved spot on, justifying a decision to move the festival up a week this year.

“These birds were essentially blown here as much as flown here,” said local birder George Matz.

For the last nine years, about 50 citizen scientist volunteers with the Kachemak Bay Birders have been monitoring sites in Homer, Anchor Point and Kasilof for shorebirds and other species. That effort builds on the 1980s monitoring of the late George West, a retired biologist who tracked shorebirds when he lived here.

On May 3, birders counted about 1,600 sandpipers in Homer, including the Spit and Beluga Slough, most of them in Mud Bay. On Monday, that number had almost doubled, to about 3,000. Most common were western sandpipers, but other species seen included dunlins, least sandpipers, dowitchers, black-bellied and golden plovers, marbled and bar-tailed godwits, yellowlegs, semipalmated plovers and a red knot hanging out with surfbirds at the mouth of the harbor.

“At this point it looks like a pretty average year both in terms of weather and number of birds,” said Matz, who coordinates the monitoring program. “We had a good diversity.”

Shorebird coordinator Robbi Mixon said she did not yet have exact numbers, but estimated about 1,000 people registered for the festival. That includes many visitors from elsewhere in Alaska and the Lower 48.

“I think everyone had a good time,” she said. “Everybody really enjoyed our speakers.”

John and Fonda Kurish took a month-long trip to Alaska from Colorado Springs, Colo., that included the shorebird festival. Describing himself as an “SOB” — spouse of a birder — John Kurish said the trip has been well worth it. The Kurishs parked their motorhome at a park on the Anchor River and have been enjoying birding nearby. On Tuesday they viewed thousands of shorebirds on the Spit at Mud Bay as the migration continued.

Hoisting a long lens the size of a mortar shell on her camera, Fonda Kurish said she especially liked a photography workshop by author and photographer Paul Bannick — but also the hospitality of Alaskans.

“The festival has been quite enjoyable,” she said. “Everybody in Alaska from Wrangell on has been extremely welcoming.”

Matz said it’s not just festival organizers, but a strong local birding and environmental community that makes the shorebird festival so successful, something that visiting birders remark upon. Birds return to Kachemak Bay because of the habitat, and the habitat is here because of cultural and political decisions to protect the land, he said.

“It should be looked at as a composite: not just the festival, not just the monitoring. They all come together in a synergistic way,” he said. “That’s what always impresses them, how this community is able to work together in that respect.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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