Top 10 shorebirds make festival soar

The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival is honored to have the nation’s top birders as guests at the fests, but the real stars are those little birds that travel so far on their own to grace our shores.

What are birders likely to see this weekend?

Here’s the list that reflects the most numerous shorebirds observers can expect to see. They are ranked from most common to 10th, based on last year’s tally by volunteers with the Kachemak Bay Birders group who monitor migrators along the Kenai Peninsula’s west coast via the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Monitoring Project.

An honorable mention goes to the black oystercatcher, the featured bird for this year’s festival.  Although uncommon, these stand out for their hefty size and big, red beaks.  They mate for life and, despite their name, eat varied intertidal organisms. They live only along rocky shores of the Pacific coast. According to reports of the monitoring project, they are seldom seen on the Homer Spit but some have been spotted this spring at Louie’s Lagoon and on islands in Kachemak Bay.

For more information on species, check out the Kachemak Bay Birders website, or better yet, take some of the birding classes or hang out with birders this weekend at the viewing stations:

• Beluga Lake/Airport — go to the end of FAA road past the airport; and 

• Mud Bay & Lighthouse Village – at the base of the Homer Spit

1. Western sandpipers: These are the big stars of the shorebird migration, known for the wheeling acrobatics of their large flocks. They winter as far away as South America and breed on the arctic tundra of Alaska and the Russian Far East. Stout little birds, they’re identified by their black legs and beaks, white chests and mottled brown backs. Thousands of them are seen annually in shorebird counts here.


2. Surfbirds: A bit bigger than sandpipers, these birds pick among rocks. They like to hang out by the entrance to the Homer harbor and also have been seen recently on Gull Island. They are streaky gray above with a rufous wing patch and light underparts and rump. 


3. Red-necked phalaropes: Most of these are seen from the boats touring Kachemak Bay. Besides tending to stay at sea, they are distinguished from regular shorebirds by their slender build, long thin beak and bright rusty neck. They live throughout Alaska and nest by tundra ponds.


4. Dunlins: These common shorebirds often flock with western sandpipers. Birds slightly larger than the westerns, these are identifiable by their black belly patches.


5. Black turnstones: Slightly larger size, a short bill, and black and white plumage distinguishes these from sandpipers. They are mostly dark, including a bib, contrasting with a white belly and spot by the eye. Their name comes from the way they forage for intertidal prey.


6. Other sandpipers: Various sandpipers and their close relatives (such as dunlins and the rarer knots, stints and sanderlings) travel together in vast, churning flocks. As they reel in the air or scurry across the tide flats, it is challenging for even the most skilled observers to identify and count them. As a default, birders lump them together with the nickname “peeps.”


7. Semi-palmated plovers: Smaller birds than black-bellied plovers, the semi-palmated plovers have a distinctive ring around the neck. They’re seen in Mud Bay and on the rocks on the Kachemak Bay side of the Spit at low tide.


8. Black-bellied plovers: The first shorebirds to show up in larger groups, black-bellied plovers are about the size of a robin and have a black belly that runs up to their necks. Often their heads are pure white, but sometimes black-bellied plovers in transition have brown or mottled backs. They tend to be seen in Mud Bay.


9. Least sandpipers: Slightly smaller than the western sandpiper, these have slightly darker backs and yellower legs. Although more widely distributed in North America, around Kachemak Bay between 100 and 200 are usually reported in annual surveys, a small fraction of the number of westerns seen.


10. Dowitchers: Called the “sewing machine” birds, the short-billed dowitchers are rust-colored or gray birds a bit larger than dunlins, identifiable by their bobbing heads like a sewing machine needle going up and down. Despite the name, all dowitchers are endowed with impressively long beaks for mining mud flats. The long-billed dowitcher is less common, but sometimes can be seen.


— Michael Armstrong
and Shana Loshbaugh