Kenai Birders Complete 24-Hour ‘Big Sit’

     Visitors from across the state and even across the Pacific Ocean were on the Kenai Peninsula for this year’s Kenai Birding Festival. A new feature was the Big Sit, where volunteers tried to check off as many species as possible in 24 hours.

     Todd Eskelin and Toby Burke had more than 30 species checked off a list of nearly 300 before 7 o’clock on an overcast Saturday morning, including seagulls, of course.

     “Several times this morning we’ve had these big bait balls over here by the dock,” Eskelin says, pointing away from the Kenai Wildlife Viewing Platform toward the winding Kenai River.

     “There’s only about 50 there now, but in a few minutes there will be several thousand.”

     He and Burke are on the first shift of the 24 hour Big Sit held over the weekend at the platform. Volunteers took three and four hour shifts, keeping eyes, ears, binoculars and scopes peeled for…everything. Gulls, sandhill cranes, owls, geese…

     Big Sits like this are gaining popularity Outside, but this was the first real official one in Alaska. It makes pretty good sense to have one here. We get a great variety of birds and a lot more daylight to observe them. Eskelin tells me that as interest in birding has grown over the years, so has the list of observed species.

     “A lot of people don’t consider themselves birders, so they come out here and they look at the birds and they really love seeing them. But it’s only when you have these festivals and you have these speakers explaining to them, you know, ‘that bird winters in Brazil’ and ‘that bird winters in Chile’ and ‘that bird only goes down to the southwestern US’. Then they really get a grasp for the difference in all the birds.”

     A pair of Dowitchers bob for breakfast early Sunday morning. They were one of more than 70 species documented during the Kenai Bird Festival.

     Twelve hours later, the sun was out and Cindy Avery was bravely manning the platform against strong winds coming in from Cook Inlet. She was working the 4-8 pm shift and had observed 35 different species when I stopped by around six.

     “But pretty much I’ve been abandoned, as you can see,” she said with a laugh toward the chilly wind.

     Avery is the vice-president of the Kenai Bird club and she’s been behind the binoculars for about four years. She says the club has been a rich resource for learning more about our winged friends who return each spring.

     “Since I joined the Kenai Bird Club, everyone’s been so helpful and really great at the learning curve and explaining to you the differences, the very subtle differences in some birds and they’ve been really wonderful. My information has gone tremendously sky high, I think, but I have a lot to learn still,” Avery said.

     They started a new list with each shift. Twelve hours later, and six o’clock Sunday morning, Toby Burke was back at it, making the final scans over the Kenai Flats. The final tally was more than 70 species identified over the 24 hours that started the previous morning.

     He says events like the Birding Festival and the Big Sit all help contribute to the social aspect of the culture of birding, which I’ve found out, is just as important as a clean scope, a pair of gloves and an appreciation for observing the natural world.

     “There’s this assumption that for birders to have a great time, it’s all about the birds. And actually, the birds are a backdrop. There’s all this social interaction. (The birders) need that interaction for them to say ‘that was a wonderful birding experience’. And we’re learning that here. They’re saying you have to give the birding public certain things for them to really feel like they had a good experience,” Burke said.

     “The birds are definitely important, but (they) want that people-to-people connection.”