Big pulse of shorebirds hints at what’s to come during festival

  • Western sandpipers, dunlins and maybe a few least sandpipers feed in Mud Bay in 2014 in Homer, Alaska. A pulse of about 8,000 sandpipers flew in Tuesday, May 8, 2018. (Photo by Michael Armstrong / Homer News)
  • Birders look for shorebirds at Mud Bay during the 2017 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong / Homer News)
  • A flock of shorebirds flies across Mud Bay in 2014. (Photo by Michael Armstrong / Homer News)

A dramatic pulse of about 20,000 shorebirds that dazzled local birders on Sunday night gave a preview of what could be expected with the 26th annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, which started Wednesday. Running through Sunday, the festival is timed to happen when migrating shorebirds pass through the bay.

Myriad events stretch through to Sunday for experienced birders and novices alike. Those most devoted to winged creatures will surely not want to miss the keynote address, “Birding Without Borders: An Epic World Big Year,” by this year’s keynote speaker Noah Strycker.

Featured presenter Iain Campbell will offer daily photography workshops for those who aren’t satisfied by merely seeing the shorebirds through their binoculars. The other featured presenter, Raymond VanBuskirk, will host guided birding trips and a talk, “Birding: Medicine for the Soul,” at 9:30 a.m Sunday at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Centers, headquarters for the festival.

This year’s featured artist is Homer’s own Erin Rae D’Eimon. Her art show will be open throughout the entire festival at Homer Council on the Arts. Other artists are featured in the festival’s 6x6 Art Show and auction. Rae D’Eimon, Strycker and Schantz Scholar Marcel Such are honored in a reception from 4-6 p.m. Friday at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center.

Returning this year is the Shorebird Arts and Education Fair from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday at Homer High School. For a full list of events and registration information, visit www.kachemakshorebird.org or see festival guides available around town. Many events are free, but paid registration to the festival is required.

Avid birder George Matz, organizer of the annual shorebird monitoring project, said he had visited Mud Bay on Sunday morning to observe shorebirds. The birds feed on invertebrates about an hour before and after a high tide. That morning he counted about 4,000 Western sandpipers and dunlins, two of the more common species. That evening he went back to check again. Birders have developed techniques to count birds by estimating the number in sample groups and then counting the number of groups.

“These birds were arriving right before my eyes,” Matz said. “When I came back, there were 20,000. It was incredible.”

A video shot from the Homer Spit Trail and posted on her Facebook page by birder Carol Harding, a member of the monitoring team, showed large flocks of birds soaring back and forth over Mud Bay. Harding said the evening light shined on the birds, making them glow as they turned, their white backs catching the sun in a shimmering cloud.

“It looks like a big wave, kind of like the starlings,” Harding said, referring to a phenomena called a murmuration when starlings fly in mesmerizing groups. “It’s just an amazing sight.”

Matz compared the pulse to the aurora borealis of a dark winter night.

“It was like the northern lights with this wave, flashing,” he said.

Shorebirds of a possible 38 species travel through Kachemak Bay and other parts of coastal Alaska on their way to summer breeding grounds. Some, like the semi-palmated plover, stay and nest in Homer, but most continue on. Already birders have reported Western sandpipers, dunlins, Pacific golden plovers, greater yellowlegs and godwits. Other migratory birds have been sighted, like sandhill cranes and greater white-fronted geese. Many species fly for thousands of miles, traveling and navigating in ways scientists are only now beginning to understand.

Through 10 years of periodic shorebird monitoring, local birders have now begun to build a systematic data set that helps them better understand when different species arrive and in what numbers. Led by Matz, volunteers look for birds at locations around the Spit and around high tides on set days.

How and why shorebirds arrive depends on weather conditions like storms, pressure systems and winds. Matz said he thinks what happened Sunday was a high-pressure system blocked a low-pressure system over the Gulf of Alaska. Low-pressure systems move counter-clockwise.

“It comes up sweeping right over Southeast Alaska,” he said. “When I looked at this wind pattern, it bent at Yakutat straight toward Prince William Sound. It was just a perfect wind situation.”

Those winds also make life easier on the little shorebirds.

“If the conditions are right, the birds get blown here as much as fly here,” Matz said. “The result is they save a lot of energy.”

At Kachemak Bay, the shorebirds refuel by feeding on the rich seafood thriving in the mud that gives Mud Bay its name. The tide passing over pulls the critters to the surface, and that attracts shorebirds. Chow time is thousands of little birds bobbing their heads, some like sewing machines, dipping into the gunk.

Once they feed and refuel, the shorebirds move on — unless they run into a high pressure system that could block them. That didn’t happen on Sunday.

“If the weather had turned, they would have stayed more,” Matz said. “They took advantage of the situation, which was to feed and fly on.”

All those birds feeding attracts birders from the Kenai Peninsula, elsewhere in Alaska, from the Lower 48 and overseas. Many birders come to add to their life lists of all the birds they’ve seen. At the peak of the migration and the festival, birders line the Spit trail, spotting scopes aimed at Mud Bay, heads down as they try to pick out a least sandpiper from a Baird’s. As part of the festival, volunteer birders work at viewing stations at Mud Bay and Lighthouse Village, offering tips on identifying birds and zeroing in with scopes.

Twenty-six years of an annual May festival has helped to created a birding community that not only knows shorebirds, but reveres and celebrates them.

“There’s a lot of active birding going on in Homer … It pays off for the Shorebird Festival,” Matz said. “… That wasn’t true earlier. They can tell stories about them. It makes for a better Shorebird Festival.”

Harding, who first came to Homer in 1994, has been actively birding for only the past 10 years. In her time she said she has seen the creation of a now-active birding club, the Kachemak Bay Birders, that holds monthly meetings and First Saturday field trips. A birding email list offers tips and reports sightings of birds year round, but especially in the spring. The bird club also has a website at www.kachemakbaybirders.org. Harding credits Matz with getting her started.

“I hung out with George and he got me going,” she said. “It’s such a pleasure, such a passion. You really get into it. … It’s turned into such a large following,” she said of the local birding community.

Matz said the increased interest in birding has created not just a community, but a birding culture — people who know birds and want to protect them and their habitat.

“The whole conservation ethic really boils down to culture,” he said. “If that culture doesn’t exist in some place, you don’t have conservation. If you can create this appreciation, then you do.”

The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival thus can be seen not just as a celebration of shorebirds, but of the people who love to watch them and learn more about them. Though a big pulse has come through, that doesn’t mean more birds won’t visit, Matz said.

“I think there are more birds to come,” Matz said. “It was a nice pulse we had yesterday (Sunday). There are more birds out there.”

For a full list of all avian events, visit kachemakshorebird.org.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com. Megan Pacer controibuted to this article. Armstrong is a member of the 2018 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Committee.

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