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History Mystery and Special Birding Spot- Anchorage’s Audubon Bench

Since I moved to Anchorage just over 11 months ago I have learned that one of the key spots to check for birds is the “Audubon bench”, which has been the site of many noteworthy bird sightings over the years. It took me a while to get to the bench because I first learned about it when trails were icy and I wasn’t venturing anywhere new then, but after spring arrived, it became one of my regular birding sites.

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When I decided that I wanted to write about the Audubon bench, I asked “Keys” (W. Keys, Anchorage Audubon president) for the history of the bench. He replied that years ago he had also inquired and reviewed Audubon records, and as far as he knew no one seemed to know the history, except it probably was built in the 1980s when the coastal trail was put in. He just heard it referred to as the “Audubon bench” and everyone continues to refer to it that way.

The Audubon bench is an actual bench located along the Anchorage coastal trail in west Anchorage, west of the railroad tunnel, near Westchester Lagoon (the Anchorage hotspot site with the most (149) eBird records). From the bench there is a view out over Knik Arm of Cook Inlet, enabling birders and photographers to see a variety of waterbirds and shorebirds. There is also habitat for passerines, including brush and trees on nearby shore areas and across the coastal trail. Many birds seen from the Audubon bench, particular ducks and grebes, can be seen on Westchester Lagoon itself, sometimes much closer to the shoreline.

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A quick check of eBird records shows that 108 species have been recorded as having been seen from the bench, most of which are seen relatively briefly during spring or fall migration, although some nest in the area or are year-round species. My list of birds seen from the bench so far is 36 species. Sightings recorded by everyone on eBird and/or the AK Birding listserv include Canada Goose, both Goldeneye species, both Scaup species, Common and Red-breasted Merganser, and numerous other duck species, Common and Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Sandhill Crane, American Golden-Plover, Killdeer, Bar-tailed and Hudsonian Godwit, Black and Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Surfbird and many other shorebirds, Sabine’s and Black-headed Gull, Caspian Tern, Common Murre, and many different passerines (e.g., Say’s Phoebe) flying by and in the nearby bushes. While many birds have been seen from this spot, of course there are many areas along Cook Inlet that are also excellent birding spots, but most are not birded as frequently as the area around the Audubon bench.

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When the tide is low, shorebirds are very far out from the bench on distant mudflats and often difficult to identify and worse to photograph, but when the tide is high (can be about 35 feet higher than the lowest tides), the mudflats and the slopes down toward the mudflats are covered with the rising water. The shorebirds fly to areas not yet covered with water, and often there are shorebirds very close to the bench, at least those that are not afraid of the nearby birders. In late July and early August, the shorebirds in Anchorage are mostly both species of yellowlegs. When nearly all the ground below the bench is covered with water as occurs on the highest Anchorage tides, even the long-legged yellowlegs are scrambling for roosting space, bringing them ever closer to the Audubon bench, and of course, the others, such as the Spotted Sandpipers are have to work hard to find a footing.

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Of course, for birders who are looking for rarities, the “best” bird seen from the Audubon bench this year was a Terek Sandpiper, which most birders have never seen, particularly anywhere in the US. This Spotted-Sandpiper-sized Eurasian shorebird has short legs and a rather long, noticeably up-curved bill. It first was found, visible from the Audubon bench, in early June when I was on a field trip to St. Paul Island (see earlier blog post), and I was sure that not seeing this sandpiper was one of the casualties of the fact that one can only be at one place at any one time. Then, amazingly, it reappeared at the Audubon bench (or in theory, another one appeared) a month later, and I was able to see it on July 6th and 7th. The best way to see it was to get to the Audubon bench before high tide and watch the shorebirds fly around as the water rose, and look for a smaller non-yellowlegs, non-dowitcher, non-godwit bird. The only times I saw it was silhouetted on a last remaining rise of land just before high tide, still fairly far out so that photos were a bit blurry. Others saw it closer in, perched on objects protruding above the rising water. Of course, long after it apparently disappeared, I, along with a number of other birders, haunted the Audubon bench at nearly every high tide, hoping to see it again. During one of those visits to the bench, I was able to get a distant view of two Caspian Terns that had recently been reported.

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I will be back to bird at the Audubon bench of course, and maybe will have new sightings to report. I even plan to carefully walk the icy coastal trail and visit the bench this winter.

 

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