Bethel Receives an Unusual Winter Visitor – A Robin

bethel robin
A robin was spotted in Bethel December 17th. Photo courtesy of Kevin Morgan.

A rare winter robin has been spotted in Bethel and it has folks wondering what exactly it means. Locals and a biologist say they think it has to do with climate change.

Listen now:

Bethel resident Myron Angstman spotted and videotaped a robin outside his window last Wednesday (Dec. 17). He says that’s not the only unusual thing he saw. Angstman says his wife looked out through the kitchen window and saw a red squirrel hanging out with the robin.

“And the red squirrel bounded into the feeder and chased the robin out and the robin came and landed in a tree by the kitchen window. So then we got a good look at it and we got some pictures,” Angstman says.

Angstman says the robin was eating bird seed because the bugs it would normally feed on are nowhere to be found in the winter. He adds that in his 40 years of living in Bethel, he’s never seen a robin in the middle of December.

“It’s always really spring before they get here. They don’t show up in the end of winter at all. It’s usually May sometime, usually late May I think, but it’s usually pretty warm out when you see your first robin,” Angstman says.

He attributes the robin sighting to climate change.

Kristine Sowl, a wildlife biologist with the Yukon Delta Wildlife Refuge in Bethel agrees.

“I would not be surprised if the milder weather is making some of these birds that are more northerly wintering birds, you know, tend to just go to the Lower 48 rather than the tropics, some of them seem to be sticking around. So we’re seeing some changes in the birds and I’m sure it’s related to the climate change,” she says.

Sowl says she’s received a flurry of calls and emails from people who saw a robin in Bethel over the past few weeks. She even spotted a robin herself on November 22nd. Sowl says the wildlife refuge does not have any documentation of a robin sighting in mid-December in the Y-K Delta. Ever.

“As far as we can determine at this point, without going back in the files, we have not had a winter report of a robin. So that would be a new thing, and worth documenting when you have something like that, a first time deal. So I’ve actually been trying to work on a rare bird report,” said Sowl.

Besides robins, Sowl says she’s also getting reports of more pine grosbeaks than usual, downy woodpeckers, white-throated sparrows and even bald eagles hanging around Bethel for the winter.

bethel_bird
A white-throated sparrow spotted in Bethel in the winter of 2013. Photo courtesy of Kristine Sowl.

Bethel Alaska Native elder Peter Atchak says he’s noticed that some summer birds are staying for winter.

“A couple of years I’ve been spotting one or two you know every now and then but not as much as we seen now. I don’t know what the reasoning is behind you know the birds of the summer time usually are starting to hang out in our area. And animals they know what the weather is going to do,” said Atchak.

Alaska Native Elder James Charles who lives in Tuntutuliak, about 50 down river from Bethel, says a robin sighting in winter is indeed unusual.

“I’ve never heard of birds being seen out of season or birds from other areas being here.”

He agrees the robin and other birds are in Bethel this winter because the climate is changing.

You can learn more about robins at birdnote.org

November 2014 went down as the warmest on record for Bethel, according to the National Weather Service.

At one minute before midnight on the evening of December 21st, the temperature dropped to negative one degree Fahrenheit. According to the National Weather Service, this is the latest in Bethel for temperatures to have fallen below zero for the first time. Records in Bethel go back to 1923.

On average, Bethel experienced a minimum temperature below zero by November 14th. The previous record of the latest below zero date was December 20th 1938.

This will be the second longest period of number of days Bethel has not had a below zero minimum temperatures.

KYUK Reporter Charles Enoch contributed to this story.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.