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29th Annual Christmas Bird Count Results

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A23 was banded as a gosling on July 27th, 2019 on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge

December 18, 2021 was Christmas Bird Count Day for the Unalaska Island Count Circle. This was our 29th consecutive count. 

A week before Count Day, Unalaska was buried in blizzards and high winds, the roads were solid ice, and things looked grim for a day spent outside. To our huge surprise, we’ve since come under the spell of huge sweeping southerlies from the Pacific. Our mountains are bare of snow and two days ago we hit 54 degrees F in Unalaska.    

So in high spirits, we fanned out across our count circle under mostly clear skies, and not a drop of rain all day. The SW winds picked up in the afternoon, and while some sections were in the lee, SW winds gusted to 35 knots out of Captains Bay and across the Spit.

15 adults and three kids spent a combined 20 hours out in the field, on foot and by car, covering a combined 27 miles of our circle. We had counters across Amaknak Island, along the Unalaska River into the valley, from Captains Bay to Morris Cove.

We saw 37 species of birds on Count Day, and three additional species during count week. The bare ground had most of the passerines dispersed away from town, and we were lucky to get ONE Song Sparrow. Rock Ptarmigan were nowhere to be seen at the lower elevations we covered.   

I put special effort into getting an accurate count of Emperor Geese. Despite the ‘big flocks’ we are seeing, the count was actually lower than it has been for a number of years. The big flocks are concentrations of geese, that have been bunched up lately for a couple of reasons. Foremost is the weather. Feeding as they do along the tidelines, they look for lee shores and these SW winds have moved the flocks around. Also, we have lost a significant amount of Emperor Goose habitat along the roads of Captains Bay and Dutch Harbor to marine filling with granite boulders, burying the seaweed and mollusks that Emperors survive on. This has forced them into other areas to feed and shelter.  

We did get an exciting re-visit by banded Emperor Goose A23! Amazingly, we saw this individual banded Emperor Goose last year as well, in March of 2020. A23 was banded as a gosling on July 27th, 2019 on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge by a team with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation - Waterfowl Program. A23 was fitted with a transmitter as well, but the transmitter failed. Even so, we've been able to track her with sightings.  

Other birds of note this year: a female King Eider on Count Day and another, a young male King Eider, during count week. A single female Tufted Duck in with the Greater Scaup near the mouth of Unalaska River. Four Barrow’s Goldeneyes. Two Black-billed Magpies have been in Unalaska for five years now (their normal range is east of us ), and we got one during count week. Also during count week a juvenile Golden Eagle was seen hunting for ptarmigan over the slopes of Ballyhoo.

While we seem to have healthy numbers of Black Scoters, Harlequins and most freshwater duck species, we had no Common Murres, and in fact almost no alcids at all in the bays. Rather sobering given the massive die offs in recent years. 

Here are the species we saw on Count Day, followed by how many individuals we counted.  Birds marked CW are 'count week birds', not seen on Count Day, but noted during the three days before or three days following Count Day.

Emperor Goose 915; Gadwall 30; Mallard 45; Green-winged Teal 30; Tufted Duck 1; Greater Scaup 547; Lesser Scaup 1; scaup species 13; Steller’s Eider 66; King Eider 1; Harlequin Duck 1,050; White-winged Scoter 123; Black Scoter 1090; Long-tailed Duck 57; Bufflehead 101; Common Goldeneye 29; Barrow’s Goldeneye 4; Common Merganser 4; Red-breasted Merganser 124; Pacific Loon 6; Common Loon 3; Horned Grebe 10; Red-necked Grebe 2; Double-crested Cormorant 7; Pelagic Cormorant 103; cormorant species 3; Bald Eagle 414; Sharp-shinned Hawk 1; Golden Eagle CW; Black Oystercatcher 12; Rock Sandpiper 1; Mew Gull CW; Glaucous-winged Gull 248; gull species 109; Pigeon Guillemot 24; Marbled Murrelet 2; alcid species 11; Belted Kingfisher 3; Black-billed Magpie CW; Common Raven 158; American Dipper 2; Song Sparrow 1; Gray-crowned Rosy Finch 33; Common Redpoll 95.

Suzi Golodoff is a local naturalist.  She organizes the bird count each year in Unalaska.

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