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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christmas Bird Count - Fun on the Mountain

Yesterday I took part in the Kodiak Christmas Bird Count. This is the yearly event when all the serious birders get together and try and count every bird within a 15 mile radius of town. The count area is portioned out to the best birders and their teams. Some teams go out on boats, others cover particular lakes or parks. I was on Stacy S's team and we had the entire Monashka Bay area to cover. The unstated goal is to identify as many bird species as possible and achieve the highest 'species diversity' of any Christmas Bird Count in Alaska. Kodiak generally wins this honor, but on occasion Juneau has managed to upstage us. Every year at the 'birder' party after the event the results are tallied up and the count organizer gives Juneau a call. It is the highlight of the party.

Every year on the count, Stacy has me climb up the North Sister to find a ptarmigan (a white, partridge-like bird that only lives in the alpine). I also look for Golden Eagles, Pine Grosbeaks, Rosy Finches, Gyre Falcons and other alpine species. But my prime goal is to get the ptarmigan - if I don't see one Juneau may beat us! My personal goal was to take a picture of a bird through my spotting scope and to post it on the blog.

Unfortunetly, on count day the weather did not cooperate. The winds were screaming and it was very cold. As a team we saw very few birds, and there was no way to hold the spotting scope still enough to get a picture (though I did try with the eagles at the dump - I counted 150 in one flock and about 300 total following the baler as it moved the trash around). But I did get my ptarmigan, and it was my adrenalin moment of the day.

I headed up the North Sister at dawn and up on top I was finding old ptarmigan tracks but no live birds. Since the wind was out of the northwest and I was on the northwest side of the mountain, I thought maybe the birds had all taken shelter on the lee side of the mountain. The wind was screaming, blowing snow and debris in big clouds across the snow and ice. At the airport the wind was a sustained 30 mph with gusts to 62. I got near the pass to go over to the other side when suddenly I was blown up the mountain and over to the other in an out-of-control rush. Rocks and ice with cliffs below and I could not stop. It was shrieking - like a was on the inside of a jet engine. I had to take my skiis off and I almost lost them. I had to slide down to a point where I was partially out of the wind and then climb sideways so I was not above the cliffs. Needless to say, but I had a bad 15 minutes there. And on the other side I found the ptarmigan. No one else saw a ptarmigan so it is a good thing I risked life and limb.

In the end Kodiak did pretty well despite the weather. Our preliminary count was 75 species (all time high is in the low 80s), but most importantly it was raining and blowing SE 25 in Juneau (prelim count 70 species). Kodiak is looking good for the state title! Patrick

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