Natural Observations-Talkeetna summer 2011

The nesting swallows leave, and other species become quiet as they tend their fledged young, the fireweed blooms move up the stalk, and other signs and stories of mid-summer in the Susitna Valley. The writer and host of this Earth and Beyond program is Robin Song. Text follows.


Photos by Robin Song

July is a busy, interesting month, in the Talkeetna area. Fledgling birds are following their parents, learning how to obtain food and avoid predators. The wildflowers which bloomed last month are going to seed and new varieties of wildflowers are replacing them. As Jacob’s Ladder, Prickly Roses, poppies, and others drop their petals, clover, pootski, daisies, yarrow, and others are coming into bloom. We keep an eye on the fireweed, for it blooms vertically, and portends the change of season. When the buds at the top of the tall stalks burst into bloom, autumn is eminent.

The weather is the usual pendulum swing from rain to sun. With over eighteen hours of daylight, when the sun does shine, it’s intense. On one such day I decided to take Lyra, the two dogs I was caretaking, and Penny, who was visiting, down to Birch Creek so they could wade in the water and cool off. En route, the dogs were strung out in front of me, heading single file through the lush growth of grass, ferns, pootski and devil’s club. Once we got to the creek, the dogs went into the cold water and layed on their bellies, letting the water cool them off. Lyra, ever-ready to play, found sticks to bring to me, which I threw into the water for her to fetch. A good time was had by all.

This year tree swallows moved into the old Hairy woodpecker nest in the birch east of the cabin. Violet-green swallows moved into one of the two nest boxes mounted on the front of the cabin. Meanwhile, two swallow pairs found a way into the insulation under the eaves on the east side of the cabin. For several weeks the area was busy with male swallows bringing food to their nesting mates, then both parents were bringing in food to hatchlings. Eventually I could hear the faint calls from tiny nestlings, and those voices grew stronger daily as the babies grew. Then came the day when the first little head appeared tentatively at the nest box hole. Their growth was rapid, after that, and soon two swallow nestlings were leaning out of the hole, wide mouths gaping at an incoming parent. I knew when the resident squirrel or the woodpeckers were near the cabin, for all the swallows in the area would gang up, diving and screaming at the predator until they drove it away. One morning the fledgling male Hairy woodpecker flew over to the porch railing to have a sunbath. It spread its wing towards the sun, and half-closed its eyes. As it was, the adult swallows were all out over the hayfields, hunting flying insects. When one returned and found the young woodpecker in its nest box territory, pandemonium broke loose. Answering alarm calls, soon more swallows arrived and swooped at the woodpecker who dove over the side of the railing and clung upside down, dodging the swallows. Finally it got a few second break in the fray so it could launch and fly off to the forest, several swallows following, still screaming at the offending bird. That was the last time the woodpecker came to sunbathe on the porch!

On July 7th the swallows fledged. First the tree swallow family exited their nest hole and excited swallows danced in the air as the youngsters tried out their wings. The next day the Violet-green family left the nest box on the cabin wall. Within an hour the two families vacated their eave nests. It seemed like the sky was full of swallows- the parents calling encouragement as their youngsters flew in large circles, learning quickly how to swoop and dive. The fledglings tired soon and I saw one family land on a bare branch of a birch. The six young swallows sat together, preening and stretching. Whenever a busy parent came with a beak full of food, all the fledglings would gape and call, fluttering their wings and begging to be fed.

The swallows stayed in the area for a couple of days, then they were gone. I dearly missed the calls of the birds and the busy parents coming to the cabin to feed their babies. It was strangely quiet. Even the songbirds seemed to have left. I was experiencing a literal “empty nest” syndrome. I found myself a bit depressed, and straining to hear bird calls. The next morning I let the dogs outside at seven am and my heart leaped as I heard, then saw the swallows. For fifteen precious minutes they swooped around the cabin, some even diving past their old nest box, and around the nest tree. Then, as if on cue, they all vanished. I wondered if they had come to bid goodbye to their old home territory one last time.

For awhile I would hear the swallows way out over the hayfields. They were getting the fledglings strong enough to begin their migration, feeding and flying in the area until they were ready for longer flights. Ten days later I was taking the dogs for a hike on the trail from Tigger Lake to X-Y lakes. When we came out on a point between the lake and a cove, I was delighted to find a mama goldeneye duck, her four ducklings and a Mallard family paddling in the water. Out on the lake a pair of Pacific Loons and a single Common Loon swam peacefully. None had chicks with them. And then I heard them- swallows! Over the trees poured several dozen swallows. Taking photos and zooming in on them later, I could see they were Violet-greens. Fledglings and adults. It looked like a swallow party; birds zipping by at dizzying speeds just above the water, swooping up into the air to join other birds circling and diving. Swallow calls filled the air and I smiled as I watched the flock. The sky was heavy with dark clouds, but I managed to get a few dozen photos before the first raindrops fell. As I walked the trail back around the two lakes, my heart felt light. It had been so great to see the swallows again-perhaps for the last time before they leave the area and begin their long migration south.

I thought maybe I had seen the last of the fledglings for the year, but I was surprised by a family of Pine Siskins, which arrived in the clearing in front of the cabin on July 21st. I watched as birds fluttered down into the large clover patch. I observed a female siskin landing on the tall stalk of a dandelion, riding it down to the ground. She selected the ones with closed seed heads. She pried open the green outer covering and deftly plucked out the white seeds. Obtaining a beak full, she would fly up into a nearby birch where her four young were waiting, wings fluttering, beaks gaping, to be fed the seeds.

Junco families are still in evidence, as well. The junco who built her nest in the greenhouse dahlia tray two years ago, returned and built her nest in a tray of celery plants. We all got to watch four babies hatch, their nest lined with Jody the mare’s hair and moose fur. Another junco built its nest at the base of a large metal roller, which tamps the earth after seeds are planted. It hasn’t been used in years and grass grew tall around it- apparently an adequate place to hide a nest, from a junco’s point of view. This nest had five eggs, all of which hatched. The parents would fly and land on various farm implements, their beaks full of insects, ready to deliver to their nestlings. The day they fledged, the five youngsters stayed in the grass near their nest, and the parents brought food to them until they were ready to fly across the drive and into the forest.

White-crowned sparrows brought their fledglings to the nursery, plying the currant and raspberry rows for caterpillars while bumble bees visited the blossoms. The bees came in such profusion that their droning became a palpable presence until they finally crawled in amongst the leaves to sleep in the late hours of the night. Their welcome efforts will produce an ample supply of berries.

In the garden, peonies, English roses and delphiniums burst into splendid bloom, and I put vases of rose, stock, and peony blooms around the cabin. It’s only once a year that I get to smell these intoxicating scents in the cabin. I appreciate it all- the flowers, the long sunshine days and beautiful sunsets, watching the fledglings with their parents, and eating fresh produce from the garden. It’s a splendid season, which goes by all too fast. I know it’s a busy time for us, but I hope you are taking time to stop and smell the flowers, as well.

Summer 2011, by Robin Song

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