Alaska Checklist: Growing by Leaps and Bounds

image of 4 eagles sitting on a branch
Credit: USFWS
A generation ago, not many people came to the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska – or to Kenai National Wildlife Refuge – expressly for birding. These days, a record-setting number of bird species has made the state a birding hot spot.
In 1959, Ira Gabrielson and Frederick Lincoln published the monumental ornithological work, Birds of Alaska, which included an annotated list of 311 naturally occurring bird species observed in Alaska through June 1958. In 1978, Brina Kessel and Daniel Gibson updated the list through November 1977, which by then totaled 381 bird species. In 1991, Gibson and Kessel again updated the list, documenting 436 species. Gibson, Steven Heinl and Theodore Tobish compiled 468 species through 2002. And as of January 1, 2007, the Checklist of Alaska Birds stood at a remarkable 478 species. Just a year later, it increased by six – not to mention 26 additional unsubstantiated species.

The Checklist of Alaska Birds is primarily founded on the collection of voucher specimens but, in the absence of an actual physical specimen, audio, photographic and video recordings are used to substantiate the state's naturally occurring species.

Today, while conducting routine bird surveys, staff members at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge document range extensions for several common Alaska bird species. The refuge initiated its Birding Hotline in January 2004 as one way to solicit interesting or rare bird sightings. A tool not only for documenting rare species – both introduced and naturally occurring – it also has been a means to document the arrival and departure dates for common migrant species.

Most of the hotline information has come from visiting birders interested in birding both on the refuge and the greater Kenai Peninsula. A generation ago, few people came to the Kenai Peninsula to bird. They came to fish. Today, although fishing is still king, the refuge has several guides that offer birding trips in addition to their normal array of fish guiding trips. Kenai Refuge provides spring bird walks on selected trails and sells refuge bird finding guides in the visitor center.

Incredible Year

In fact, 2007 was an incredible year for new bird species in Alaska. Strays from Eurasia included brown hawk-owl observed on St. Paul Island and sedge warbler and yellow-browed bunting seen on St. Lawrence Island. Bullock's oriole and vesper sparrow are North American breeders also newly documented in Alaska. Additionally, the checklist gained a new species as the result of a taxonomic division of the Eurasian vagrant bean goose into taiga bean-goose and tundra bean-goose. Gray heron and Eurasian collared-dove, both Old World species, were also observed in Alaska in 2007, but observers did not submit supporting documentation in time to be considered for the latest update.

The checklist does not include species whose occurrence in Alaska is considered unnatural, the result of human assistance, known or presumed. Accordingly, you will not see Humboldt penguin on the checklist even though one was captured alive in a southeast Alaska fisherman's net in 2002. It is strongly suspected that the penguin was transported to Alaska waters aboard a South American ship. Nor will you see brown booby on the checklist, even though one accompanied a yacht sailing 2,200 miles from Hawaii to the port of Kodiak in August 1999.

Other notable birds you will not see on the checklists are becoming increasingly common on the landscape, such as rock pigeon (domestic pigeon), wild turkey, northern bobwhite and ring-necked pheasant. Considered commensals, these species are not known to persist independent of humans. After numerous introductions, they appear to be breeding in the greater Homer area to the point that they may some day persist independent of humans.

Although not native to Alaska, European starling is already on the state checklist, not merely because it is believed to have made it to Alaska on its own, where it typically lives in urban and agricultural environments, but because it also persists, though not commonly, in the larger wilder landscape. European starling along with the newly arrived Eurasian collared dove and the rarely encountered house sparrow and house finch have the dubious distinction of being our only invasive bird species encountered in Alaska.

Like most comprehensive bird checklists, the Checklist of Alaska Birds reflects not only the contributions of many highly skilled and passionate professional ornithologists and wildlife managers, but it also contains the contributions of many highly skilled and passionate citizen scientists. Their eyes, ears and minds are open to the diversity of our Alaska avifauna.