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Potter Marsh – A Year of Birding an Anchorage Hotspot

Potter Marsh is one of the best known places to go birding in Anchorage. The mostly shallow wetland was created by damming an estuary in 1917 and has become a nesting place for many birds and a migration stopover for others. The marsh stretches for about 2 miles along the only highway that heads south out of Anchorage. A very long boardwalk (over 1500 feet long) extends along the north end of the marsh and gives excellent views southward over the marsh.

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As soon as possible after we moved to Anchorage last year, I went to Potter Marsh. Although I had visited it briefly a number of times over the preceding years when I came to Alaska to bird, my plan was to visit it regularly in the coming year so I could see what the marsh, and its bird visitors and residents, were like over the changing seasons. Having just reviewed my eBird records for the last year, it looks like I birded there on about 60 days during the past year, or more than once per week on the average, and rarely was able to drive by it when I went south of Anchorage without stopping for at least a brief birding visit.

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The most noteworthy features of my first few visits in September of 2014 were Trumpeter Swans feeding and resting before heading farther south (first observed Sept. 20), Bald Eagles, which nest and apparently remain all winter in the area, as well as Greater Yellowlegs, Wilson’s Snipe, and the residents such as Black-billed Magpies and Black-capped Chickadees. By early October, the number of Trumpeter Swans had increased to 21, and a single Tundra Swan (the rarer swan in the Anchorage area) was seen.

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By November, I had visits there where only two species (Common Raven and Black-capped Chickadee) were around, but if I stayed long enough there was often a Bald Eagle found, and a Common Redpoll or Bohemian Waxwing. The same small selection of birds was still there in January and February (I skipped December). By mid-March, a few herring gulls were being seen, but it wasn’t until April, that a single shorebird (Greater Yellowlegs) appeared as did a Trumpeter Swan and a couple of Rusty Blackbirds.

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The bird variety finally began to increase in mid-April with the arrival of a few scaup (both species), Red-necked Grebes, more gulls (Mew primarily), and Sandhill Cranes out in the marsh grasses or flying overhead. May brought more of each species, as well as the first Arctic Terns, Tree Swallows, warblers (Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned, Wilson’s, Northern Waterthrush) and sparrows (White-crowned, Savannah, Lincoln’s).

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Later arrivals included Alder Flycatchers, which were common from mid-June to early August. A few of the usual puddle ducks were around through the summer as were Canada Geese, Mew Gulls, Arctic Terns, and the warblers and sparrows mentioned above. The flycatchers, geese and gulls made the marsh a very noisy place at the height of the summer breeding frenzy. A small flooded area across the highway from the marsh, next to the railroad tracks, briefly hosted a noisy Common Yellowthroat at the end of June, a very rare bird in the Anchorage area.

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Shorebirds, presumably on their southward migration already, appeared at the marsh in late July, including both Yellowlegs species, Least, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, and more Wilson’s Snipe. By the end of July most of these birds, as well as the gulls and Arctic Terns were gone from the marsh and it was very quiet, except for the cry of the Belted Kingfisher, which had arrived from somewhere and was usually now seen on my visits to the marsh, and the occasional sound of a Merlin chasing one of the Bald Eagles.

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A very surprising non-bird sighting in late July was the appearance of three stoats (short-tailed weasel) bouncing along the boardwalk one morning – and never seen again (yet). Other than the periodic sightings of moose out in the marsh, and the indication in the mud that bears are around, mammal sightings at the marsh have been infrequent.

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I knew the year had come full circle since my arrival in Alaska in September 2014, when I drove out to the marsh on September 3 (this year) to find that two Trumpeter Swans had appeared. When I went there yesterday, the number of swans was up to 4, still all Trumpeters. A nice thing about birding is that there is some predictability as the seasons come and go, but an even better thing is that with a good habitat, such as Potter Marsh, there can be unusual sightings, if one keeps going there and looking. So I expect to repeat my regular visits to Potter Marsh in the coming year.

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