Preliminary results for Anchorage’s 2021 Christmas Bird Count (CBC) have been reported and based on the initial compilation of data, participants in the Dec. 18 count observed 44 species and 13,137 individual birds. Among the “unusual” birds noted by compilers were a great gray owl, two trumpeter swans, a northern flicker and a flock of snow buntings. But what was most unusual—and most notable—about this year’s count was an absence. For the first time in more than a half-century Dave DeLap did not participate.
A resident of Anchorage since 1965, DeLap died on Oct. 13 at the age of 89. While he contributed to our community in a variety of ways—teacher, coach, mentor, church leader, to name some prime examples—here I’ll focus on the central role he played in Anchorage’s birding community for some 5½ decades.
Dave is best known for his long-time contributions to the holiday bird count, an effort the Anchorage Audubon Society (AAS) has called “nothing short of legendary.”
Dave Sonneborn, himself among Alaska’s premier birders, points out that before DeLap joined the annual event, Anchorage CBC participants typically recorded only a handful of species. Under DeLap’s guidance, the species list “expanded to the 30 to 40 species that are regularly seen today.”
From 1971 to 2003 Dave DeLap served as Anchorage’s chief CBC compiler. During those 33 years, he became famous for his “meticulous” record keeping (which included the counts’ human participants along with the avian statistics). Being old school, he preferred to record CBC statistics by hand, even after the Audubon Society had begun transferring data to computer spreadsheets. For much of that time, Dave and wife Miriam frequently and generously hosted “tally parties” at their home the evening of the count.
Even after he’d retired as the official compiler, Dave continued to be a count leader and kept his own updated records, carefully cross-checking his data with those of succeeding compilers and, says AAS leadership, he “kept us on our toes by questioning any discrepancies.” In total, he participated in 59 Christmas counts, 7 of in Montana (before he traveled north to Alaska) and 52 in Anchorage, the last of those in 2020.
Dave’s passion for birding, the CBC, and data compilation prompted him to write a detailed history of Christmas counts, not only in Anchorage but also throughout the state. In 2015 he completed “The History of Alaska Christmas Bird Counts in General and Anchorage in Particular,” and later arranged for that paper and all his personal CBC records to be kept in the UAA/APU Consortium Library archives.
My own recollection of Dave DeLap begins in the 1990s. In researching a story about Anchorage’s CBC, I arranged an interview with him. Dave graciously welcomed me into his homes, where he showed me his impressive collection of records and patiently answered my many questions about the local Christmas count and its history.
At first Dave struck me as a serious guy, the kind who could be “all business” and “doesn’t suffer fools.” But as we got to know each other better, and he recognized my own passion for birds and nature more generally, plus my own inclination for taking detailed notes and “getting things right,” he seemed to lighten up and now and then even shared his dry sense of humor.
We remained more acquaintances than friends and years would sometimes pass between the occasions when we’d see each other or talk. But he remained one of my primary go-to people when I had questions about the CBC. And one summer in the early 2000s, I got to experience first-hand Dave’s passion for birds, extensive knowledge, and sharp memory, when our paths crossed in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.
I was just beginning to learn about the refuge’s ecology and wild inhabitants, and Dave became one of my important teachers. I would later describe our encounter in an essay titled “Anchorage’s Wild Coastal Fringes” and I’ll pull a few excerpts from that essay here.
One morning while scanning the refuge’s flats, I noticed a lone person crossing the mud, a tripod slung across his shoulder. It was the first time I’d seen anyone along that stretch of coastline in the dozen or so times I’d walked it. Only when he’d come close did I recognize the figure to be Dave DeLap. As I later wrote, “I should have guessed, but his field outfit fooled me. Blue jeans, knee-high boots, and a bulky camouflage jacket cover his lanky frame, while a baseball cap tops his thinning, silvery white hair and dark sunglasses hide pale blue eyes.
“Dave is even more surprised than I am to have company out here. ‘Well, I’ll be . . . Good to see you Bill. I was wondering who that could be. Usually there’s nobody else out here. You’re the first person I’ve seen in a long, long time.’ ”
Among the things I learned from Dave in the spring of 2002 is that he’d “been visiting the city’s coastal flats every spring and summer since 1966, mainly to watch birds. Over the years he’s identified more than a hundred species, including a local rarity called the terek sandpiper. As far as Dave knows—and if anyone knows, it’s likely to be him—the terek sandpiper has been positively identified three times in Anchorage. He and a buddy were the first to ID one; they spotted it June 15, 1979, from what Dave calls the Klatt Spit. Besides being a top-notch birder, he’s an obsessive record keeper (as suggested above).”
It’s therefore no surprise that he’s also a serious “lister” of the many birds he’s observed over the years. That penchant for listing, along with his top-notch gear—for instance the brand-new, top-of-the-line spotting scope he enthusiastically showed me, his excitement like that of a star-struck kid who’s just been given a long-desired telescope—mark him as a dedicated birder. I, on the other hand, am more of a “generalist” whose interest is drawn to many different types of animals and plants and other forms of life. I’ve never been driven to keep track of all the bird species I’ve identified, or the where and when of first sightings. Still, as noted elsewhere, I am something of a compulsive journal keeper who for years has kept track of the birds, mammals, wildflowers, and other organisms I’ve encountered in the Anchorage area. And I do take great pleasure in learning the names of local animals, plants and landscape features. So there’s a commonality that served as a kind of bond with Dave.
Another is our embrace of solitude. While other parts of the refuge might draw bigger crowds of birds, he preferred areas where he was likely to see lots of avian variety and few, if any, people. Though he visited the refuge twenty or more times each spring and summer, some years passed without him meeting another person.
“There’s another thing that lures Dave back,” I later wrote, “a mix of the familiar and the unexpected. Over the years, this has become his stomping grounds, the place he had taken the time and energy to know. And in getting to know what’s usual, he’s developed an eye for spotting the extraordinary.”
That too resonated with me then and continues to do so today.
So there’s a taste of what I learned from, and about, Dave DeLap during our initial meeting in the refuge, with considerably more detail in my essay about the refuge. Here I’ll only add that he generously invited me to join him on one of his morning hikes. I did, and learned a heck of a lot about not only the refuge’s birds, but also when and where they are most likely to be found within his favorite area.
So here’s a salute to Dave DeLap’s passion for birding, his dedication and obsessive record keeping, and his generous nature, expressed in many ways.
Dave DeLap, born May 2, 1932 and died October 13, 2021, RIP.
Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org