AK: Off Course

This adult male Dickcissel has been seen in Bethel since mid-August, thousands of miles from his normal range. Photo by Kevin Morgan

They say birds of a feather flock together. But try telling that to a small, brightly colored songbird that showed up in Bethel last month. The unusual bird is thousands of miles outside of his normal range. And he hasn’t started flying south yet. That has many birders wondering why he sticking around and if he’s going to try to survive the harsh Alaska winter.

Bird feeders in the Morgan’s yard are busy every summer. On this day, it’s mostly white crowned, tree, and fox sparrows.

There’s a good view of the activity from the old wooden porch in front of the house. Kevin Morgan can often be found here, studying the birds with his binoculars. That’s what he was doing on Aug. 14, when something unusual caught his eye. At first, he thought the small brownish bird was either a juvenile white crown sparrow or a tree sparrow. It can be hard to tell the difference.

“And then it looked up and turned its head and it was something that I’d never seen before in my life,” Morgan said.

Morgan has lived his whole life in Bethel and as an up-and-coming birder, he has familiarized himself with most birds in Alaska.

“I freaked out. I went crazy. I saw something that made no sense to me,” Morgan said, laughing.

Steadying his binoculars in one hand, he tried to call other local birders with the other. He knew whatever the bird was, it was rare, and needed to be documented. He eventually gave up the binoculars and grabbed his trusted Sibley bird book.

“And it opened right to the Dickcissel,” Morgan said.

As Morgan recounts the story to me on his porch, we get a visitor.

“Oooh, there it is, there it is, the Dickcissel, it’s to the right of the stump. See that black bib, very bright yellow chest, very bold eyebrow on a gray head,” he said.

This bird matched the adult male Dickcissel in Morgan’s Sibley book perfectly. but its primary range is 2,000 miles away in the Midwest.

“They typically occur in the middle of the Great Plains, they’re a grass land or prairie nesting species,” Morgan said.

That’s Brian McCaffery, one of several Bethel birders who has seen the Dickcissel in Morgan’s yard. He’s also the Education and Outreach Specialist for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, based in Bethel. It’s the largest refuge in the country, roughly the size of Maine, and brings in birds from all over the world to nest on the rich tundra wetlands.

In his office, McCaffery sits in front of his computer checking out “e-bird,” a public observation site that shows a map of Dickcissel sightings this year.

He says the Dickcissel is known to broaden its range if there’s a drought, like the one experienced this summer in the Midwest.

“You’ll notice we have some observations over in New Jersey and Maryland, a few in Southern Canada, there’s even several along the Gulf Coast of Texas, but none of this magnitude, this is really unusual,” McCaffery said.

To add to the mystery, the bird is an adult male. McCaffery says while it’s not unusual to find vagrant birds inside the refuge, older ones are very uncommon.

“We often find young birds that are lost and are out of range and for whatever reason, they get mislead on their first migrations, but for an adult bird to end up here is really a-typical,” McCaffery said.

“In the larger scheme of things, it’s not surprising that a migrant bird occasionally shows up far out of range,” David Spector, a Professor of Biology at Central Connecticut State University and an expert birder, said..

“Some birds make 180 degree errors. At a similar distance but just in the opposite direction of where they should be,” Spector said.

It is possible that this Dickcissel thought it was migrating to its usual winter stomping grounds near Central and South America. And this year’s drought could have given the bird more incentive to keep moving.

“Perhaps this bird got turned around in terms of the sun or the stars or the magnetic field of the Earth, whatever it was using, and headed off in the wrong direction and just kept going,” Spector said.

Its migration time on the refuge, and whether this bird will fly south is still unknown. But McCaffery is hopeful because the bird is an adult.

“He already has wired into his brain where he needs to get to, he’s been there before. So, unlike a lot of what we call vagrant birds, birds that are really lost from where they should normally be, I think this guy has a fair chance of getting back on track,” McCaffery said.

Over the past month, the bird has had a lot of admirers in Morgan’s yard. A birder even showed up from Fairbanks.

But the Dickcissel’s fate is uncertain. He lost his tail feathers, which could be from molting or from a predator, like a shrike. In any case, Morgan is keeping tabs. He continues to put bird seed out every day.

“One thing I really like about bird watching is, no matter where you do it, as soon as you do it, you’re in the wild all of a sudden. You could be on a busy street, but if you’re looking at a bird, you’re in the wilderness, or if you’re in your front yard, and you’re bird watching. . .it’s ah. . .oh, there it is again, Dickcissel,” Morgan said.

But for the bird’s sake, Morgan is hopeful he will wake up some morning soon and find the Dickcissel has left for the winter. He’ll be sad to see the bird go, but happy knowing it’s on its way south.

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Angela Denning is a reporter at KFSK in Petersburg.