10 May 1998
by Jeff Bouton
The migration continues and the days are still getting longer. We are at 18 hours, 6 minutes of daylight with an hour of dawn/dusk on either side and will ciontinue to gain 6-7 minutes daily through solstice. So needless to say I can relate to those complaining about bird songs at night. Through my open window I am currently hearing Mew Gull, Sandhill Crane, Common Raven, Hammond's Flycatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Robin, Bohemian Waxwing, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, White-winged Crossbill, and many Redpolls.
The Redpolls now have fledged young and all of the new mothers (in honor of the day) are busily flitting about. The Hammond's only arrived two nights ago and surprisingly stuck around, despite the few deciduous trees in the area. The Bohemians, while resident, are new to the yard as well. They have been foraging on recent insect hatches in the spruce tops that ring the yard and from the few birches which are 1/4 to 1/2 way leafed out. The temp is near 60 degrees F currently. It is interesting that there are two male White-winged Crossbills are in full song despite finding a nest 2 nights ago with two nearly fledged young. Between the waxwings, the singing Juncos & Crossbills, and the multitude of calling Redpolls it is a sort of study of trills as they all over lap. This burry chorus is accompanied by the melodiousYellow-rumpeds, Robins, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, the rhythmic "sid-dick" from the Hammond's, and the distant bugling of the Sandhill Crane and Common Raven.
This is my first migration and breeding season at this residence, so it is always fun tuning your ear for the specific composition of any one area. Given the habitat, I had anticipated the sweet sounds of Thrushes, namely Swainson's, Hermit, and Varied. Gray-cheekeds are a common Alaskan species too, but they inhabit the higher elevations and prefer willows to spruce. It is still early though, and my flute section may just be running a tad late.
Like so many others, I always associate the Varied Thrush and its song with mature spruce stands as that is inevitably where you find them throughout most of their range. However, each summer while touring the Seward Peninsula near Nome, I am surprised to hear them singing from willow laden slopes hundreds of miles from the nearest spruce. Regardless of how many times I hear this it sends my system into shock, because it seems so out of place mixed with Bluethroats, Wagtails, and Arctic Warblers. I have never noticed that this "willow population" differs in looks from those in the spruce, but in typical Varied Thrush fashion the birds remain fairly well hidden when singing. Nor have I noticed any great difference in song, but as the name suggests, the song is varied and a typical song pattern is hard to describe.
At any rate, back to matters at hand. Most common waterfowl species have been reported already, and only a few such as Blue-winged Teal and Gadwall and some of the sea ducks remain unreported from the interior. Eleven species of shorebirds have been reported as well, all in full song, display, and color. The Lesser Yellowlegs are tooting from spruce tops already (it's a northern thing!), and Common Snipe are winnowing everywhere. Arctic Terns are swirling over most large ponds throughout and the Mew Gulls are perching like sentinels in tree tops next to the Yellowlegs. While the resident passerines are busy feeding young, the migrants continue to arrive each day. I see new species daily whether actively birding or not. Some new species recorded this week include: Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Golden Plover, Arctic Tern, Violet-green & Bank Swallows, Swainson's & Varied Thrushes, Savannah, Fox, Lincoln's, White-crowned, and Golden-crowned Sparrows, among others.
I took a few hours out yesterday and went to the South Cushman Flats and the Airport Ponds in town. The area is a man made dredge spoil between the dump and the airport and serves as the best shorebird spot we have here in the interior. It's ironic that here we are in the middle of a fantastic wilderness, and the best birding area is a disturbed area. To see near the variety or number of birds one sees at So. Cushman, you would have to visit dozens of small ponds that are widely scattered and not accessible.
At any rate, I drove the perimeter first and saw my first pair of horned grebes for the season. They were fully decked out, and along with the many waterfowl species, were actively courting and starting a nest. There were a few Canada Geese, but no swans. Water levels are low locally so the typical swans and geese have had to find new areas this year. Additionally there were dozens of Green-winged Teal, Mallards, and hundreds of Northern Pintail. There were many No. Shovelers around in small groups and hundreds of American Wigeon. Canvasback were the most numerous diving species, followed by 40-50 Lesser Scaup, a handful of Ring-necked Ducks, 4 Bufflehead, and 6 Common Goldeneye with a pair of Barrow's for direct comparison.
I had my first pair of alternate plumaged American Golden Plovers of the season with a third bird in mostly basic (non-breeding) plumage. I saw my first pair of Semipalmated Plovers and Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers joined a group of Pectorals. My first flock of Long-billed Dowitchers wheeled in giving their distinctive, "KEEK" calls. Always helpful, but especially so here in Alaska where the caurinus sub-species of Short-billed occurs. This is the subspecies that is most similar to Long-billed. They settled in next to a pair of Hudsonian Godwits.
Content that I had seen all there was to see for the moment, I pulled into my favorite area to play with my dogs. The area is my favorite because it is more glass free than the rest of the area, the pond on one side has a deep edge and hard packed edge (so I can have the dogs jump in and free themselves of the mud they have picked up!) The "boys" ran up and down back and forth always staying within 100 foot or so while I continued to glass the water comparing the goldeneyes, etc. We've done this enough now that they know getting too far away will result in a reprimand and possibly being banished to the car again.
Then the boys and I played a little stick watching and waiting (have a 100 lb. Black Lab, and a 80 lb. mostly Golden Retriever thing. Both think they are lap dogs!). After a while, I spotted a distant flap, flap, glide that seemed to ring a bell. I pulled myself out of the game and glassed across the flats to see my first adult Sharp-shinned of the season, a female. After some swimming to clean the boys up, I asked them to lay down in a grassy patch while they dried some and I went back to the scope for a while. Birds began scattering every which way so I pulled back and looked toward the sky . Here was an adult Bald Eagle sailing over. In the surrounding shrubs I could hear Flickers calling, a Fox Sparrow, 2 Tree Sparrows, a distant Yellow-rumped, a Junco, 2 Robins, a small group of Rusty Blackbirds, and another Hammond's Flycatcher. The birds were just getting settled back in when I spotted an adult Peregrine Falcon going right to left just 50' up. I expected a good show, but someone was pulling up the drive and I decided to put the boys back in the van to keep them from getting filthy again. The car passed, but when I tried to find my falcon again it was gone. I decided to scan the entire horizon once again. Far and high off to the right a falcon was soaring, I grabbed the scope and quickly swung it around. Here was a bird that appeared to have broader, blunt wings, with a pearly gray back. There was no definition in the face, and no contrast between the breast and belly as in an adult Peregrine. This bird had all the look of an adult gray Gyr, but I'd never know as it were drifting away and I had responsibilities at home I needed to attend to. I left still wondering had I seen a Peregrine?....Was the distant bird the same?.....Regardless, it was a fun couple of hours and I was able to see a lot of old friends. Ain't Birding Grand?.....