Join avian enthusiasts and novices alike in celebrating the 27th annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, running May 9-12 this weekend.
The festival, sponsored by the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges and Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, is timed to coincide with the migration of shorebirds through Kachemak Bay, and honors the Alaska birding community and 27 years of conservation education with a multitude of events and opportunities to view and learn about both local and migratory bird species.
In May of 2018, the Kachemak Bay was graced with a pulse of approximately 20,000 shorebirds a few days before the festival began, captivating local birders and hinting at what could be expected at the festival last year. The arrival times and patterns of shorebirds are largely dictated by wind and weather patterns, and the phenomenon occurring last year could be attributed to a high-pressure system blocking a low-pressure system over the Gulf of Alaska, according to the organizer of the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Monitoring Project, George Matz. Those pressure conditions essentially allowed shorebirds to get blown to the Kachemak Bay in 2018.
This year, Matz noted that shorebirds are arriving in punctuated pulses, rather than the single large pulse occurring in the previous year. But the shorebirds are arriving, he said. In his Session No. 5 report from Friday, May 3, Matz recorded sightings of “a nice variety with 13 species and 3 other taxa. … Also, larger flocks are starting to show up.”
During that session, 29 volunteers participated in making observations at five sites in the Homer Spit area, the upper part of Seldovia Bay, Anchor Point and the Anchor River, and the Kasilof River. Shorebird species observed included Pacific Golden Plovers, a few Greater Yellowlegs, Black Turnstone, Sandpipers, and Long/Short-billed Dowitchers. Matz also sighted three Marbled Godwits at Beluga Lake on the morning of Monday, May 6.
“That’s kind of interesting because there’s this population of Marbled Godwits that breeds in the Alaska Peninsula, and Marbled Godwits are nowhere near here or near Alaska otherwise,” Matz said. “The plains and the prairie provinces of Canada are the closest they come, so it’s like 2,000 miles away. For some reason there’s this population that’s here, and it comes through Homer and it’s a stopover for them to get to that next stage.”
Another unusual sighting that birders should be on the lookout for this festival is the Eurasian Widgeon.
“Eurasian Widgeons have been showing up pretty routinely, and that’s basically a Siberian bird. It looks a lot like the American Widgeon here, but it’s the Siberian species,” Matz said.
According to Matz’s Session No. 5 report for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Monitoring Project, “shorebirds have started to show up, maybe a bit later than normal. But weather conditions along the Pacific Flyway have not been balmy, which may have delayed the migration.”
Right now there is a high pressure system in the eastern Gulf of Alaska with north-south winds paralleling the Pacific Flyway, according to Matz’s report.
“This should break up soon and be replaced by a low-pressure system. … When this happens, based on our experience from observations in previous years, big pulses of migrating birds should arrive in the Kachemak Bay area,” Matz wrote.
All in all, there is a lot of excitement in store for attendees of this year’s Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, as well as for residents of the greater Homer area.
The festival “does start off the tourism season,” said Debbie Speakman, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. “We have a cleanup day the week before, and a lot of the restaurants and shops on the Spit open for the first time of the year, and it really gives a boost to all of the tour operators and the lodging folks and the restaurants.”
The annual shorebird festival welcomes visitors and birders from all over Alaska, as well as from the Lower 48.
“We’re really excited this time of year,” Speakman said. “There’s this energy that starts in town, and it’s not just the businesses on the Spit, but all of our in-town businesses — things are brightening up.”
Visitors will have a variety of events to attend.
This year’s keynote address will be given by bird lover and author Jennifer Ackerman at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Mariner Theatre at Homer High School. She reads from and discusses her latest book, “The Genius of Birds.” Ackerman also will be hosting a keynote workshop on nature writing at 10 a.m. Friday at the Islands and Oceans Visitor Center, as well as a seminar, “How Birds Know Where They Are Going: The New Science of Bird Navigation,” at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.
The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival welcomes back featured presenters Raymond VanBuskirk, Ben Knoot and Mark Obmascik. Pultizer-prize winning journalist Obmascik will be presenting on his latest nonfiction book, “The Storm on Our Shores.”
VanBuskirk is the president of the Central New Mexico Audubon Society as well as owner and lead guide of BRANT Nature Tours. Join him for the Seabirding 101 Workshop and Boat Trip at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, where birders will combine classroom learning with on-the-water application of new birding skills. VanBuskirk also will be giving a featured presenter talk, “Birding, Medicine for the Soul,” at 9:30 a.m. Sunday at Islands and Ocean.
Knoot leads photography tours and workshops for Tropical Birding Tours and will be hosting bird photography workshops during the festival, including two Introduction to Bird Photography seminars at 2 p.m. Thursday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday, at the Islands and Oceans Visitor Center.
Feature artist Valisa Higman visits from Seldovia with her design of this year’s festival art, a diving Wilson’s snipe, in her signature cut-paper style. Higman’s art can be found at K-Bay Caffe on Pioneer Avenue and at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Her art also will be featured during the 6×6 Art Show and Auction Fundraiser hosted by K-Bay Caffe. The auction closes May 12 at noon.
On Thursday at 12:30 p.m., Elenor the Sandhill Crane Puppet will make an appearance in the parking lot of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. She will then “migrate” to the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center’s back patio, where she will be available for photo opportunities before completing her migration to the auditorium for a new Sandhill Crane presentation by Kachemak Crane Watch co-founder, Nina Faust.
Elenor was crafted by several local artists and puppeteer Charles Aguilar. This is her first time appearing at the Shorebird Festival.
The festival also honors two Schantz Scholars this year, student birders attending through a scholarship that honors Timothy and Tom Schantz, twin brothers who died young from cardiac disease. Sarah Hoepfner grew up in Cordova, Alaska, and is currently a senior at Humboldt State University in California, studying biology with an emphasis in ecology and biodiversity. Henry Stevens is a senior at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he founded the Tufts Ornithological Society. Both Schantz Scholars will be available at the Welcome Reception at 4 p.m. Friday at the Homer Chamber of Commerce.
Hoepfner will give a talk, “Living Among and Studying Birds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” at 3 p.m. Friday at Islands and Ocean. She also can be found at the Beginning Shorebird Walk at Bishop’s Beach on Saturday, May 10 at 8:00 a.m. Stevens’ talk is “Systematic Prioritization of Important Shorebird Sites” at 2 p.m. Friday at Islands and Ocean. He also will be available at the Beginning Forest Songbird Walk on the Calvin and Coyle Trail at 7:30 a.m. Saturday.
If you are a novice birder, the festival offers events to help get you started, such as the Birding Discovery Lab for Absolute Beginners. This event allows novices to alternate between hands-on learning stations hosted by local birding experts to learn more about birding basics and local and migratory species that can be found in the area. There also are events scheduled for beginners and families, such as Birding Basics for Families at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, where attendees will learn the basics of bird identification.
For a full schedule of events, view the festival program at http://kachemakshorebird.org or pick up program guides at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center or Islands and Ocean. Many events are free, but registration for the festival is required for $20 a person and $5 for each additional family member.