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New breeding bird discovered in Kenai Mountains on family hike

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On the third morning of our four-day hike and campout, my husband Toby said “This camping trip is shaping up to be a flop.” I didn’t disagree. It was windless, humid, and incredibly buggy. Our kids, and possibly even their parents, were short-tempered. Our dog had ripped the fly and some guy lines off a new tent, losing a tent stake in the process.

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We were camping along Palmer Creek Road near Hope, one of our favorite destinations for alpine hiking and camping. Determined not to waste this day, we got an early start. After hiking for an hour or so, we were in the alpine tundra, above the hordes of mosquitoes, and flopped down for breakfast. It was the beginning of what, amazingly, turned out to be a very good day.

Daddy brightened everyone’s demeanor by uncharacteristically offering chocolate chip cookies after breakfast. The next part of the climb, the steepest and most difficult section, was over a scree field with slippery footing from recent snowmelt. Although it is typically in these steep sections that baby Max usually fusses, lunges, and pulls my hair from his seat on my back, today he was placid and the ascent went without a hitch.

Later we hiked to a big saddle above 3,000 feet where we stopped for lunch and let Max run around. A juvenile Golden Eagle, missing a primary feather, soared overhead. American Pipits nesting nearby flew back and forth with food in their beaks to feed their young.

After lunch we hiked up the mountain to the north of us, knowing from the topographic maps that there was a large plateau at about 3,800 feet. The gravelly, sparsely vegetated plateau was bounded by a snowfield on one side and steep slopes on the others. This is one of the preferred habitat types for Northern Wheatear, a rare alpine breeding thrush on the Kenai Peninsula, which we were hoping to find on this trip. As we hiked we were alert for any bird sounds or movement.

We had encountered some Horned Larks and a family group of American Pipits when another more distant bird became visible. Looking through my binoculars I saw a seven-inch tall sandpiper with a very straight, completely black bill, black legs, and black scaling on the back. Toby was jubilant as he made the identification: “Baird’s Sandpiper!”

We’d been looking for this sandpiper on the Kenai and Kasilof Flats during spring and fall migration, never quite entertaining the possibility that this bird might breed on the Kenai Peninsula. Yet here one was in windy 40-degree temperatures on a mountaintop in mid-summer. It was in breeding plumage, foraged a few hundred yards away, and repeatedly returned to the area of our original encounter. Though we never saw a mate or young, we suspected from its behavior, plumage, and preferred habitat that this bird likely had a nest or young nearby.

We knew previously that Baird’s Sandpipers nested in alpine tundra of the Brooks, Alaska, and northern Aleutian mountain ranges. We were thrilled to have found what was potentially a nesting Baird’s Sandpiper on the Kenai Peninsula! This was a significant discovery. Unlike most birds newly discovered to be nesting here, this bird is not one that is expanding its breeding range north and west as our climate warms. Baird’s Sandpipers have likely been nesting on the Kenai Peninsula since area glaciers started retreating approximately 18,000 years ago. Yet no one knew that they might be nesting here until now.

After a couple hours, we had to head back down the mountain toward camp. I went to sleep that night thinking of new breeding range maps for Baird’s Sandpipers in my field guide, knowing that the Kenai Mountains might someday be included. I was thrilled that we may have made a noteworthy discovery on a family hike.

We had started our hike a bit exasperated. But the appearance of that seven-inch-long bird high on a windswept mountain changed our perspective on the whole trip. As we drove back towards Hope the next day, we stopped to view other mountains to see if there was potential breeding habitat and if we could feasibly take the family on exploratory hikes up them.

We were looking for high mountains with sizeable plateaus between 3,000 and 4,500 feet, with nearby snowfields which the sandpipers prefer in the alpine portions of their breeding range.

We consulted our topographic maps for other potential breeding sites as hiking destinations, and were eager to get back in the mountains for further exploration and confirmation of breeding Baird’s Sandpipers. We had forgotten about the less than ideal start to our trip, and didn’t mind that we hadn’t found a Northern Wheatear. The very real possibility of Baird’s Sandpipers nesting right here in the Kenai Mountains fueled our imaginations.

In the past three years of backpacking trips in the Kenai Mountains our family has also encountered likely breeding Surfbirds and Wandering Tattlers. Now, a third alpine-nesting shorebird is known to be up in our local mountains. We can’t wait to return and provide new information to Alaska ornithologists. If Baird’s Sandpipers have nested undiscovered in the Kenai Mountains for thousands of years, what other yet undiscovered birds are also breeding here?

It is great to live in a place where so much remains to be explored and discovered.

Laura Burke enjoys exploring the mountains and bird life of the Kenai Peninsula with her husband, refuge biological technician Toby Burke, and their nine children. You can find more information about the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge

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