Songbirds barely make it in time for shorebird festival

May 9, 2018

Warblers are just beginning to arrive in Homer.
Credit Wwcsig via Wikimedia Commons

The twenty-sixth annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival begins Thursday. Both locals and visitors are poised to spot a large variety of shore and songbirds. But songbirds arrived later than usual this year.

This year the shorebird festival will offer over 100 events from workshops and field trips to film screenings and activities for young birders. Robbi Mixon is the shorebird festival director, and she said the event is expected to attract about 1,000 attendees this year.

“That includes locals and people from around the state as well as others from outside,” she said. “We often have a few international people as well.  If our registration numbers follows the same pattern as the last few years, it will probably be our biggest year yet.”

But one of the festival’s most important guests almost didn’t show up on time.

“Songbirds are definitely behind— probably at least a week for most species, some species like fox sparrows maybe two weeks later than average arrivals,” said Aaron Lang, co-owner of Homer based bird tour operation Wilderness Birding Adventures.

Lang said it’s anyone’s guess why the birds are late. But he said wind conditions may have prevented them from flying established routes to Alaska. Weather near Homer has also been colder than usual, which may be another factor. 

“It’s the food availability,” he said. “Obviously, insect-eating birds are not going to be finding many insects if it’s been in the low 30s to mid-30 for most of April.”

But Lang isn’t concerned. He said if the conditions are favorable for breeding, songbirds will do just fine.

He said shorebirds, on the other hand, are arriving on time. Lang said it’s hard to say why shorebird species such as the western sandpiper, the dunlin and others weren’t affected by cooler weather and wind conditions.

“My guess would be that shorebirds are stronger flyers,” he said “Maybe their routes are different.”

There’s more good news for birders this year. Shorebird populations, which have been downswing for decades, seem to be stabilizing.  

Birder George Matz monitors populations around Homer for a local birding group known as Kachemak Bay Birders.

“I mentioned this precipitous drop, since the 70s, but I don't think that's true anymore,” he said. “I think it's kind of leveled off. So I think so we're seeing maybe some recovery.”

Like Lang, Matz isn’t too concerned about songbird species arriving late. But he said climate change’s effect on migratory birds is something to keep an eye on.

Matz adds that insect-dependent species on the North Slope arrived late a few years ago, but the insects hatched early.

“There wasn’t a matchup between that food supply and the need and so there was a big starvation of the birds,” he said.

Matz said conditions in Kachemak Bay should not cause any problems past a few late arrivals this year.

The shorebird festival runs from May 10—13, and most species should stick around until the third week of May.