On December 15th 2018, Unalaska held its annual Christmas Bird Count. The weather was brisk but decent, 30 degrees, partly cloudy with Northeast winds around 25 knots and 10 inches of fresh snow on the ground. Seventeen adults and nine kids ventured out in eight field parties, driving, walking and skiing, covering a combined 34 miles of habitat, and tallying every bird within their designated sections.
Counters spread out from Captains Bay to Humpy Cove, scanning bays and shores, hills and valleys, creeks, lakes, bird feeders, pot yards, and spruce groves! Count day results were 5,113 total individual birds of 42 different species, with five additional species seen during count week.
Christmas Bird Counts are done all across Canada, the United States, Central America, and in northern parts of South America. First begun in the year 1900 by early conservationists on the East Coast, the CBC is the longest running ornithological data base. The annual continent-wide survey gives scientists and citizens a broad look at long term trends and population concerns. Across Alaska, thirty some Christmas Bird Counts are conducted, from Southeast to Barrow, in the Interior and along most of our coastline. Sometimes Shemya and Adak do counts, but when they don’t Unalaska holds the honor of being the westernmost CBC.
This was Unalaska’s twenty sixth consecutive Christmas Bird Count, and over the years we’ve covered roughly the same area with roughly the same number of observers. Sometimes you see this reflected in the consistent number of birds such as American Dippers or Song Sparrows counted every year. Harlequin Ducks are another species with remarkably consistent numbers. Other species fluctuate widely from year to year, and weather is a big variable on any given count. Recent storms for example, or lack of snow on the ground, results in what counters might see out there. But larger factors also play into the movements and numbers of birds across great regions. When a particular species goes into decline, or a population drops suddenly across broad areas, that raises a flag of concern.
Who knows why, but things look bleak for Steller’s Eiders these days. They have gone from a high count in 1993 of 957, and steady counts in the mid-hundreds through 2002 (696), when count numbers suddenly dropped by half and have continued to plummet every year. In 2014 we counted 125. In 2015: 77. In 2016: 49. In 2017: 13. This year, we counted 4. As the winter deepens, I suspect that more will show up, and one can only hope.
Since our winters come later than normal now, the arrival of the big flocks of Emperor Geese is also happening later. Over the past twenty years we’d count an average of 1,200 Emperors during the late December / early January Christmas Bird Count. But now the flocks come later and counts have dropped to 597, 467 and 351, in the past three years respectively. Again, once winter deepens, more geese should show up. Both Steller’s Eiders and Emperors migrate to the Aleutians from northern breeding grounds, so the numbers may be a result of what’s going on north of us in the Bering Sea. Other duck species seem stable; we got good counts of Black Scoters, Greater Scaup, and Green-winged Teal.
Alcid numbers, although always variable, were extremely low on our count, and the bays felt empty of murres and guillemots. This year’s count, followed by our past high count was Common Murre: 15 (4,067); Pigeon Guillemot: 26 (324); Marbled Murrelet: 3 (164).
Always hoping for surprises, we got some! Two Short-eared Owls were seen hunting over Bunker and Strawberry Hills. Known to breed in the eastern Aleutians (rare or uncommon) they are very seldom seen so late in the year. The other surprise (and a first for an Unalaska CBC!) was a Snow Goose among the Emperor flock. Being an immature it is still gray, and is slightly smaller than an Emperor, with a thicker, black bill. Other unusual winter sightings were a couple of late staying warblers in the spruce groves, a Tufted Duck among the scaup, a male and female Barrow’s Goldeneye, and a Northern Shrike hunting around town. The Black-billed Magpies (2) were seen during count week.
As always, many thanks to our brave and sharp-eyed counters every year!
Here are the count results. CW stands for birds not seen on count day, but reported during count week, the three days before and three days following count day.
Emperor Goose 351; Snow Goose 1; Mallard 18; Green-winged Teal 143; Tufted Duck CW; Greater Scaup 167; Steller’s Eider 4; Harlequin Duck 1,004; White-winged Scoter 221; Black Scoter 1,268; scoter sp. 7; Long-tailed Duck 81; Bufflehead 96; Common Goldeneye 34; Barrow’s Goldeneye 2; Common Merganser CW; Red-breasted Merganser 66; duck sp. 30; Rock Ptarmigan 1; Common Loon 2; loon sp. 1; Horned Grebe 23; Red-necked Grebe 16; grebe sp. 3; Pelagic Cormorant 111; cormorant sp.14; Bald Eagle 428; Black Oystercatcher 15; Rock Sandpiper 50; Wilson’s Snipe 1; Common Murre 15; Pigeon Guillemot 26; Marbled Murrelet 3; alcid sp. 7; Black-legged Kittiwake CW; Mew Gull 21; Glaucous-winged Gull 231; gull sp. 134; Short-eared Owl 2; Belted Kingfisher 2; Merlin 3; Northern Shrike 1; Black-billed Magpie CW; Common Raven 294; Pacific Wren 1; American Dipper 6; Snow Bunting 4; warbler sp. CW; Fox Sparrow 1; Song Sparrow 20; Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch 158; Common Redpoll 23.