This weekend marks the 14th annual Kenai Peninsula Birding Festival. We sat down with one of the event's many organizers, Toby Burke, to talk about what's planned for this year and what's happening in the world of birding.
On birding as a competition and an exercise in citizen science:
"I know for a lot of people, at first, it's just about seeing new forms of life; beautiful forms, conspicuous forms, bright, colorful forms. And then when people kind of refine their skills a little bit, it becomes a game. ‘Hey, lets go out and see how many birds we can identify.’ A game that sometimes can be competitive. A lot of people will take it even further if they want, and it becomes an intellectual pursuit and even a scientific pursuit. Now, when you say scientific pursuit, we’re not saying you have to be a professional. But I can attest, having been a professional ornithologist, I will dare say some of the most knowledgeable people about birds in the state of Alaska are not paid, professional ornithologists, they’re amateurs. They’ve taken their skills and their interest to a much higher level...with a systematic pursuit.”
On the expanded range of different species into Alaska as a result of a changing climate and more development:
“As our climate becomes more temperate, we get more temperate species breeding up here or at least frequenting the area. I can name several species that just say, a generation ago, didn’t exist here that today are fairly common. In particular, some feeder birds that people might take for granted, like a red-breasted nuthatch. They were not here in 1970. Now, not only are they here, they’re ubiquitous. Stellar’s jay, northwest crow, brown creeper, ring-necked duck. These are all species that you would not have seen in this area.
“The other thing is our area is becoming more developed. I know people here don’t want to admit to it, but dare I say, urbanized. Urbanization in itself alters, not always negatively, there can be positive aspects if you’re looking at diversity. People tend to beautify their lawns with exotic plantings. These exotic plantings tend to bring in and even concentrate what were once exotic species.”
On capturing moments and sightings in the mind rather than with a camera:
“For me, yes, it is a conscious decision. I get a little derision from some people, they’ll say ‘you saw this great bird, but you didn’t photograph it.’ It’s not a selfish act as much as I want to be unencumbered. I have my binoculars, I might even have my scope. That’s enough for me to be carting around. My wife will take a camera, and a lot of times she’ll be trying to get this beautiful photo, and I’m on to the next bird. And I know other birders, and they’re not always older like me, I’m in my 50’s, I know some other birders who are in their 20’s and 30’s who are tech savvy, and they love going out there and just having this organic experience where they’re unencumbered. They have their optics, but other than that, they just want to be strolling. They don’t want to have the pressure to document something. They go ‘it’s just good enough that I saw the bird.”