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photo: Robin Song

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Natural Observations-Fledgling time

by KTNA Staff ~ June 27th, 2011

Those goofy-looking and acting wanna-bes are noisily making their presence known…baby birds just out of the nest are all over. Earth and Beyond host, writer and photographer Robin Song introduces us to fledglings she has found lately. Audio runs 7 min 22 sec, text is below.

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Photos by Robin Song

June is fledgling time, in our area of Alaska. A walk in the hay fields with my Aussie pup, Lyra, revealed a fledgling robin standing in the tall grass, still as a statue. Dad robin called to his youngster, watching Lyra and I, while holding a beakful of food. Putting Lyra on “sit, stay”, I carefully approached the fledgling and snapped some photos, then returned to Lyra and walked with her away from the robins, so dad could deliver the food to his offspring. A little farther on I watched another fledgling robin fly up from the grass to a limb of a birch at the edge of the hayfield. This fledgling was guarded by mom robin, who- like dad- also had a beakful of food for her offspring. We had come across a family of robins, and likely the nestlings had fledged that morning. The parents would continue to feed their offspring for a week or more, while the young birds were learning to feed themselves and needed protection from their parents. In a good year, robins in Alaska can raise a second clutch, while robins Outside can raise three and sometimes even four.

The woodpeckers were also being kept busy with their fledglings. I had come upon a newly-fledged family in the forest, and the male and female Hairy youngsters were easy to find, for they yelled in loud voices for their parents to bring them food. I stood under a birch and watched a fledged female. While waiting for her dad to return with more food, she spent her time exploring her new world. She clung to the trunk, examining and gently pecking at the bark, learning to search for insects hidden therein. When she heard dad flying through the forest, she immediately turned her head to follow him, calling loudly and fluttering her wings. As he landed on a branch below her, she gaped her bill wide and he bounded up the trunk and shoved the beakful of insects into her mouth. As he flew off in search of more insects for his voracious youngster, she continued to call loudly.

I heard the call of another Hairy woodpecker farther out in the forest. It wasn’t hard to track the calls to a nest hole high in a tall birch at the edge of the hayfield. Mom was being kept busy bringing food to her youngster in the nest. When he would hear her approach, he would being calling from inside the trunk. When she landed on the trunk beneath the nest hole, he would poke his head, continuing the call until she undulated, woodpecker-fashion, up the trunk until she could reach her beak to her son and transfer the insects she had collected for him. He gulped them down and chittered as mom flitted to a nearby limb to have a quick preen before she flew off to begin the hunt again. It’s possible the female fledgling I observed earlier was this young male’s sister, leaving the nest a few hours before he took his first flight.

The little downy woodpeckers also had fledglings and I watched a set of parents bringing food to three fledglings scattered amongst spruce trees. Curiously, the red spot on the head of the males of both woodpecker species is spread over the forehead and crown, and is a pale reddish-orange. Eventually these juvenile feathers will molt and when the adult plumage comes in, the red spots will be on the back of the head and bright cherry-red.

In early June I had watched parent birds of various species bringing food to their nestlings. As fledgling time drew near, I could almost hear the parents singing: “Oh it’s fledgling time again, you’re gonna leave me. I can see that far-away look in your eyes…”

(Sung to the tune “It’s Crying Time Again…”) The parent birds, like chickadees and redpolls, looked haggard. Their feathers were ragged and scruffy, and they constantly searched the vegetation for insects. How they can nab another caterpillar without dropping the ones already in their beak is amazing. I’ve seen a chickadee heading for its cavity nest with a beak crammed full of caterpillars, flies and moths.

A walk in the forest above the Talkeetna river in mid June brought me my first-ever sighting of three fledgling fox sparrows. They flew up into the trees when I came around a bend in the trail, and their mama flitted from limb to limb, keeping pace with me as I walked by their patch of forest, making sure I kept going. Twice, during that hike, Lyra and I came around bends in the trail and discovered mama spruce grouse with tiny chicks. Both families were taking dust baths in the trail. When the mamas spotted Lyra and I, they immediately spread their wings and tails, setting up a soft clucking, telling their puff-ball chicks to go into the brush and ferns for protection. As Lyra and I walked past, the mamas made like they were sick and vulnerable, hunching their backs and dropping close to the earth, walking in front of Lyra to lead her away. Lyra is an Australian Shepherd, which is a herding breed. Her instinct to catch and kill has been muted by years of domestication and careful breeding to encourage the herding instinct. I could trust her to not harm the grouse, even though she is still a puppy. As we headed on past the place where the chicks were hidden, the grouse hens would relax and head on into the brush, to eventually call their chicks back to them when we were far enough away. In awhile, the families would return to their dust bath.

The trail passed through a pond made by four-wheeler traffic and as Lyra and I waded in I was startled by the sight of a winter wren parent and chick on a log beside the trail on the bank. The birds were equally startled by us and the chick darted into the ferns in one direction while the parent went in the opposite direction. Unlike the other birds we had met that day, this pair immediately hid and stayed quiet. I didn’t stop, but kept going, with Lyra splashing on ahead, enjoying the cool water. It was a pleasure to catch a glimpse of the wrens. I haven’t seen this species in several years.

A walk to the Talkeetna Water Treatment Plant on June 18th revealed ducklings, ducklings, and more ducklings. Mallards, green-winged teals, widgeons and goldeneyes swam amongst the reeds and lily pads. Greater and lesser Yellowlegs and a solitary sandpiper flew overhead and stood on islands in the moats, keeping their fledglings hidden in the tall marsh grass. Gulls wheeled over the holding ponds, their youngsters calling for food. It was a busy place, full of the parents and young of many bird species. Walking the trail back towards the car, I heard the clicks of juncos and white-crowned sparrows as Lyra and I passed by where they had their fledglings hidden in the undergrowth. Robins flashed by with beaksful of food for waiting young.

It’s a wonderful season, full of the promise of the next generation, from birds to mammals to insects. Flowers in bloom, with butterflies and bees attending them, the tiny hoof prints of moose calves in the mud beside their mama’s large tracks, the calls of young coyotes joining in with their parents and pack members on a summer evening, the reports of bears and cubs being sighted….indeed, it is the time to get out and enjoy our lively and splendid north country summer.

Fledgling Time, by Robin Song

KTNA, 061911

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