Birding in Shishmaref
The changing climate in our region brought many environmental changes. Sea ice in Shishmaref was all but gone by May 10 more than 20 days earlier than the past five years. A warmer winter brought a larger amount of snow that melted quickly, but was gone in a similar time frame as previous years.
The birds with a few exceptions did not really change their arrival times. The normal rhythm of the spring migration was not overly affected. Buntings and gulls still arrived in mid-April, sparrows in early May, and shore birds in mid-May. I remember waking one morning to the call of a white-crowned sparrow thinking spring has truly come.
Unusual was that there were early sightings of birds such as black scoters, red-breasted mergansers and several pelagic cormorants over the ocean. Normally, sea ice would have extended beyond our island for quite some ways, so seeing birds flying over open water was quite unusual.
Another significant change I have seen has been the number of sanderlings on our beaches this spring. Normally our beaches would still be covered by snow and ice but this year saw a quick melt and lack of shore fast ice. I believe this has allowed them to find a good place to pause in their migration to their breeding grounds further north for a plentiful food supply. So many more sanderlings have been seen this year than in all the past years combined in the spring.
Here, in early June, I have been able to document 60 species of birds, quite a good number for me this early in our birding year. I have added two new species to my list with a rare white-throated sparrow that wintered here with the McKay’s buntings and a bluethroat, which is not uncommon for our region and seemed to be a matter of time before I saw one.
It will be interesting to see how the rhythms of migration may change with the changing climate.
Another item to note as the ice on the beaches has melted have been the number of beached birds I am finding again. We have counted around 50 murres of both common and thick-billed murres littering the beaches at both ends of the island as well as other alcids. I believe they are the remains of last year’s die-off but they are still a reminder that we need to pay attention to the indicators of the health of our ecosystem from which we subsist.
Reports have been coming into our UAF Marine Advisory Program agent Gay Sheffield of dead murres in the eastern Norton Sound area as well as below normal numbers of the same on St. Lawrence Island where they are common breeders.
With warmer waters we could experience another algal bloom that affects the local ecology of our region. Be aware and report any strange behaviors in our local wildlife.