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Considering Killdeers and Collared Doves

Recently I have spent time searching for a Killdeer and a Eurasian Collared-Dove. This may sound weird to most lower-48 birders.

105aA couple of days ago I finally saw my first Killdeer in Alaska. When I was a child in Wisconsin, Killdeers were common, as they are in many places, and I saw them often, particularly on mowed lawns. Nearly everywhere that I have lived the Killdeer has been a common species, but in Anchorage, it caused much excitement last week when not only was one found in a parking lot area near the edge of town, but it was also found to have nested here. Of course, I dropped everything to go look for, and eventually find, my Alaska Killdeer, so that I could add it to my state-list (as well as to my year list and my Anchorage list, of course).

009aAs I was beginning to write this blog post, I learned that a Eurasian Collared-Dove had just been found in Elderberry Park, a downtown Anchorage park that I had not yet visited. Since I have moved here there have been a couple of reports of these doves in other towns, but I had not seen one in Alaska. Eurasian Collared-Doves, not native at all in the US, have been spreading rapidly northward across the country. In many Texas towns they seem to be the most common neighborhood bird. I saw one in Wisconsin in the late 90s, and they nested in our spruce trees in Rapid City, SD (one pair nested three times in one summer, producing two young each time). So far they are very rare in Alaska, but probably not for long. I actually began to write this post earlier than usual this week, before it was due, so I had time the next morning to look for the Collared-Dove. My hunt for the dove began with a hunt for the park, then the specific spot on the coastal trail where the dove had previously been seen, and then an extended walk in and around the park neighborhood. No dove. I mentioned the goal of my quest to two other birders whom I met while I was searching on the coastal trail. They turned out to be from England and found it very funny that one would “chase” a Eurasian Collared-Dove, one of their yard birds. After over an hour of hunting, I returned to the sighting spot, and there was the dove, eating elderberries.

This enthusiasm for seeing “rarities” that are not rare elsewhere is probably only found in listers, especially listers who travel to bird or who move to new locations. As I wrote in my January 27th post, when I moved to Anchorage, I was struck by how different the common birds were here compared to anywhere else I have lived. Before that, however, I first was struck by the oddity of birders’ definition of and response to bird rarity on a trip to England many years ago. As we drove over a bridge in the Cornwall area, we were amazed to see nearly a hundred birders, with spotting scopes aimed at an area of the tidal mudflat. When we stopped to see what caused all the excitement, we learned that a Least Sandpiper had been found in the area, and all the British twitchers had come to add it to their bird list. I saw it too, of course, and later, saw its picture on the cover of a British birding magazine. Of course it is a common bird in most of the US sometime during the year, and it is unlikely that very many Americans travel very far to find one so they can add it to their lists.

043ABirders who keep lists of their state or country or life birds regularly go on birding expeditions for the express purpose of finding rarities. Most bird species are not really rarities if one looks at their whole range. Most US bird species are relatively common in part or all of their range. But many birds that are common in some parts of the country are often very difficult or impossible to find in other parts. I expect we all know this, but I still am regularly surprised by it and often have difficulty adjusting my expectations when I go somewhere new to bird.

I have recently added other Alaska rarities (or birds uncommon to rare this far north) to my Alaska list, including a Common Yellowthroat found by a birding tour group along the highway south of Anchorage across from one of the most popular birding spots, Potter Marsh. I was only able to obtain a fuzzy partial picture of the bird, but it was enough to document the excitement of seeing a rare bird in Alaska that I grew up with in Wisconsin.

014aAAlthough not rare, Rufous Hummingbirds are difficult to find in the city of Anchorage and in the surrounding areas. South of Anchorage, a couple of Rufous Hummingbirds frequented feeders near a café at Portage Glacier earlier this summer. In contrast, in Texas and the southwest, Rufous Hummingbirds are noisy and omnipresent in many areas, especially in late summer where there are feeders or nectar-producing flowers. Every year that we lived in Fort Worth, we had a wintering Rufous Hummingbird. Definitely not rare there, but their rarity in Alaska made me very glad to see them this summer.

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Red-winged Blackbirds are uncommon to very rare in parts of Alaska. A friend of mine visiting St. Paul Island years ago, was amazed to find that all the birders arriving on the island were immediately racing off to look for a reported Red-winged Blackbird, rather than looking at the spectacular seabirds of the island that are not found in most of the rest of the United States. While I did not see that particular blackbird, I was delighted to find three Red-winged Blackbirds in a marsh near Seward, AK earlier this summer.

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Of course, one of the things that brings so many birders to Alaska each year is the multitude of birds that are relatively easy to find in Alaska, but are rare or not at all found in the rest of the United States. As I have written earlier, Steller’s Jays, Black-billed Magpies and Common Ravens are three of my most common yard birds, and their young can now be found in my neighborhood. None of these birds was common where I lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and only the Black-billed Magpies were common around where I lived in Rapid City, South Dakota.

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In Anchorage in summer, both Mew Gulls and Arctic Terns are common nearly anywhere there is water. In my Texas big year (2005), my last bird of the year was a Mew Gull on December 31st, a bird I had unsuccessfully sought many times during the year and was delighted to finally find. In Anchorage in contrast, Mew Gulls dot every marsh and their screams are omnipresent. Most evenings I even see a couple fly over our neighborhood, which is near the mountains, nowhere near a lake, and all the way across town from the shoreline. While I haven’t yet seen an Arctic Tern in our neighborhood, they regularly sit on sign posts at many parks, and nest at the edges of parking lots during the summer. Not rare.

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While there are certainly advantages to living in the same locale for a long enough time to know for sure what is possible there and what is rare, moving to a new location is definitely a way to shake up a birder’s world. Chasing (or better yet, being the one to find) a bird, even a common bird, that has ventured out into a new place where it is rare can add sparkle to a birder’s day.

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