The belated Big Day

I just realized I never wrote up my report as to this year’s Anchorage Audubon Big Day competition back in March! It wasn’t anywhere as bizarre as last year’s but I’ll hit the highlights. Quick review of the rules: 24 hours (5 pm Friday to 5 pm Saturday), anything spotted/heard within Anchorage municipal limits counts, whole team has to see unless somebody is taking a break.

Once again, I teamed up with my regular birding companion, D, but this time we actually went out on Friday night as well as on Saturday. After last year’s debacle, it was nice to have relatively clear weather for a change. Friday night we mostly stuck around town

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The gorgeous sunset Friday night overlooking Cook Inlet from Pt. Woronzof.

but Saturday we headed south.

Maybe a quick geographical lesson is in order.  The Municipality of Anchorage is much larger than what is more commonly known as the city of Anchorage.

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Map courtesy of the Municipality of Anchorage.

It includes several communities beyond Anchorage, any number of climate areas from coastal to mountains, forests, agricultural land, a fjord, urban and suburban zones. Much of the landmass is unreachable by road. It’s about 50 miles from north to south. The Muni is almost 2000 square miles. So when the rule-makers give you the entire municipality? It’s some serious ground to cover.

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Mountains on the Kenai Peninsula from the Beluga Point overlook on the Seward Highway, en route to Girdwood.

We mostly stuck to the mid-town area of Anchorage on Friday night, but Saturday we headed out early to Girdwood. Girdwood stretches from sea level–where the Girdwood Hwy meets up with the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm–on up to the ski resort where the terrain is alpine. Yes, we stopped for breakfast at the Bake Shop because don’t you have to? And wow, we got the birds that liked the terrain. Pine siskins, white-winged crossbills by the gross (and a life-lister for me), and pine grosbeaks. Bunches of them.

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Pine Siskins in Girdwood. I don’t know how many we saw: a LOT.

After a few hours of tromping around some trailheads, we headed back down to the Seward Highway and headed south. We did a circuit around the parking lot at Portage Lake, and went to the farthest south section of the Seward Highway that was still within boundaries. That’s where we saw our best sighting–had to do three u-turns on the highway because of it and wow, do I not suggest that as a regular practice–a great horned owl about 10 feet up from the ground in a tree right on the side of the highway at 11 am on a very sunny morning.

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Great horned owl.

We’d blown by it on the outbound but spotted its silhouette on the return. At least one other group had searched the Portage Valley area the night before, looking for owls with no success, and there we were, spotting it in the middle of the day. And okay, I have to confess. That map above? The owl was kind of in the middle of that straight vertical line in the lower left corner. I’m still not sure it was within boundary. But we decided to claim it anyhow and managed to remain vague on our report of having seen it “in the Portage area.”

After that we headed back up to the city. We wandered around the Hillside area for a bit–spotted a ton more siskins, grosbeaks, and crossbills. Then I checked the birder’s listserv and somebody had reported a female American Wigeon at one of the local parks which is usually home to what seems like most of the resident mallard winter population.

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Female wigeon amongst the mallards at Cuddy Park.

We saw at least three other teams in that parking lot looking for that wigeon. Then the news came through that somebody had spotted a house finch in Girdwood and they all peeled out for the 45 minute drive south. I looked at D, she looked at me, and we went “Naaah” and headed over to Goose Lake in hopes of spotting a grey jay.

We didn’t get a grey jay but we did great some great views of an active hairy woodpecker and then called it quits for the day.

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hairy woodpecker

This year: 21 species and only 2 moose! While we still didn’t win, we weren’t even really in the running, tripling our score from the previous year AND not having the same count of moose as bird species makes me feel all right about how we did.

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There’s two moose in this shot–the big one in front and a yearling in back to the left. The only moose we saw during the 24 hour challenge. I’m okay with that.

I’m definitely looking forward to next year. Even though I’m completely positive there’s no way for us to triple our score from this one.

The next Audubon challenge is this coming Sunday: The Potter Marsh-a-thon Birding Smackdown. I’ve never done it before but it’s another annual event for our local Audubon group.  4 hours of intensive and competitive birding in the vicinity of Potter Marsh, one of my absolute favorite birding areas in the Muni. I’m looking forward to it. I just found out D & I have been invited to join a team with a few birders who are in the top ranks competitively so there’s a chance we might even place for once!


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