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Migrations bring bird boom to Alaska

A lot of visitors are flying into Anchorage right now. But they won't be buying any T-shirts or postcards.

May brings tens of thousands of birds to town -- geese, cranes, swans, sandpipers and harriers, to name just a few of the commonly spotted species.

Exactly how many is hard to say. Nils Warnock, the state director of Audubon Alaska, said it's possible to see 90 to 100 species around Anchorage in a 24-hour period, especially if you include Cook Inlet or a side trip to Seward.

"And there are certainly more than 100 species passing though Anchorage in the spring," he added.

Nature writer Barry Lopez has likened the rush of birds into the North each year as the land "inhaling," taking a deep breath and sucking in an atmosphere of life.

The Alaska Zoo will celebrate that influx by observing International Migratory Bird Day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. Several organizations, including Audubon Alaska, Ducks Unlimited and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, will have displays and information booths. There will be prizes and hands-on activities. The Bird Treatment and Learning Center will have several birds from its program on hand to meet the public and a rehabilitated bird will be released back to nature in the afternoon.

The event is timed for what is likely to be the peak bird population either in or passing though town. The spring migration in Alaska is much more compressed than the out migration in the fall.

"Birds have a really tight window up here to breed in," said Warnock. "Their nesting has to be tightly coordinated with the peak insect hatch. If they miss that, it can have big consequences for the young.

In contrast, birds can stagger their departures in autumn, he said. The unsuccessful breeders may head out as early as July, followed by the successful breeders and juveniles. It's not unheard of that birds could still be leaving the state as late as November.

Founded in 1993 by a group called Environment for the Americas, International Migratory Bird Day has events now hosted at 500 sites throughout the Western Hemisphere, according to the group's website. It was originally held in early May. "But we recognize that this date doesn't work well for all bird events and bird festival organizers, or for the migratory birds themselves," says the website. So the timing of the celebration is now different from place to place, April and May in the U.S. and Canada, fall in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In Anchorage, late May makes a lot of sense. Compare the 100 or so species you may see this weekend to the 30 or so noted in the Christmas Bird Count.

The overwintering birds -- ravens, ptarmigan, magpies and even chickadees -- have a special spot in Alaskans' hearts. But more birds tough out the winter in Anchorage than you might imagine.

"I'd say about half the bird species in Anchorage can be found here in the winter," said Tamara Zeller with Fish and Wildlife. She named ducks, gulls, grebes and loons as birds with a year-round presence. "We have some sandhill cranes that stay through the year," she said.

Even the storied arctic tern, whose 22,000-mile annual trip from Antarctica to Alaska and back gives it bragging rights as the animal with the longest migration, according to encyclopedias, is making Anchorage a permanent residence. The terns have been nesting year-round in Potter Marsh for a couple of years, Zeller said.

"Some of them decide they just want to stay here," she added.

The arrival of migrating wildfowl makes Anchorage "a wonderful situation for people who want to come to see some unique species and still be in the city," Zeller said. "It's a really great urban hot spot."

Big birds like tundra swans, bald eagles and assorted shorebirds get the most attention. But many -- indeed most -- of the summer visitors are songbirds and other wee critters: nuthatches, redpolls, warblers, robins and the like.

"New things are coming through every day," said Warnock last week. "I was down at Potter Marsh and there were big swarms of tree swallows."It really is a great time of year."