by KTNA Staff ~ May 18th, 2014
Robin Song tells about her experiences during this year’s area birdathon.
photos by Robin Song
As the May 2nd morning dawned clear and sunny, I knew we were in for another warm day. It had been an exceptionally warm, dry break-up, and I wondered what effect this would have on the annual spring migration. A year ago there had been lots of snow on the ground and the ponds and lakes had still been held in winter’s grip of ice. There had been no open water on the rivers, as an ice jam had sent huge blocks of ice back up-river a few months before, and it took a long time for those blocks to move on down the river. It had been a strange Bird-A-Thon last year, with hardly any waterfowl in the area, and no birds flying above the frozen rivers. I looked forward to things being different, this year.
The day did indeed turn quite warm, and when my birding partner and I headed for our usual pond, I went without a jacket, for the first time, ever, on a springtime hike to that pond. Another surprise awaited me. Friends Cari and Dave were there, glassing the pond for birds. They told us that they had seen only Bonapart’s Gulls. In all my trips to this pond during prior Bird-A-Thons, this was the first time I had seen only one species of bird in the valley. We stayed awhile, hoping more birds would come winging in, but none did.
We headed on up to Saunder’s Crane Sanctuary in Trapper Creek. Yet another surprise- no snow on the barley fields! And only a few cranes jabbed their long bills into the dirt, searching for barley seeds. In prior years this eighty acres would be covered with slushy springtime snow and crammed full of all kinds of birds, from shorebirds to ducks and geese. The forest would be alive with songbirds, and hawks and eagles would be dragging our binoculars to the skies overhead. It was eerie to see only the cranes in the dirt, and hear only a couple of Vaired Thrushes calling from the forest, and watch a Robin fly by. Last year I had watched my first-ever Pectoral Sandpipers striding in shallow puddles of melting snow while cranes plunged their beaks through the deeper snow around them, grabbing barley seeds, and ducks and geese floated in puddles and preened on the snow.
I’m sure the lack of snow and therefore water had discouraged birds from coming to the barley fields this year. A few of the thirty or so cranes before us danced a little, bowing and spreading their great wings. One or two called in their ancient-sounding voices. The flock headed farther out into the field, poking at the dirt as they walked along. They were subdued, perhaps because it was coming on sundown and getting close to their roosting time. We decided to head up Bradley Road and scout out an eagle’s nest to see if we could add a Bald Eagle sighting to our list. Heading along the dirt road skirting the field which sits across the creek from the nest site, I was delighted to spot a few White-Fronted Geese out in the field of golden grass. The eagle was down in her large nest and did not raise her head up, even though I’m sure she had heard us in the distance, walking to the water’s edge to watch for her through our binoculars. The sun was setting and she was settled in for the night.
The next morning, as I was heading along the drive at the ranch, I had my first-of-the-season sighting of a White-crowned Sparrow as it flew up off the gavel. I snapped its photo out the car window where it landed on a branch, and took it as a good omen for the day. I picked up my birding partner and we finally got our eagle sighting when we both spotted one circling high in the blue sky east of Montana Lake.
The day also promised to be warm, and I had brought along shorts and a tank top, this time. This was usually clothing I’d be wearing in late June or early July, not early May! We met other birders along the way, and exchanged sighting information. When we heard there had been duck sightings at the pond, I decided to return there. I just wanted to see more than Bonapart’s Gulls in that valley! Turns out I was in for more than I could have imagined!
My partner and I split up-he heading for the east shore, the dogs and I heading for the creek along the north shore. Sure enough, Arctic Terns had now joined the gulls, and a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneye Ducks stood on the thin ice pan on the west side of the pond. Mallards, Common Mergansers, and two pairs of American Widgeons floated in the dark water. A pair of Yellowlegs flashed by overhead. “That’s more like it,” I thought, as I trained the binoculars on the wheeling terns.
Directly across the pond from me stood an old beaver hutch. The beavers had left the valley a few years ago, having used up the food source and moved on. Unlike humans, they don’t “clear cut” an area, causing erosion and silting up creeks. They’ll stay in an area long enough to raise a family or two, then move on. Nature programs them not to overuse an area- would that humans choose to be so wise.
A movement in the water by the hutch caught my eye. I put my binoculars on the brown form. The creature dove under the ice. It surfaced on the other side of the large hutch and climbed out onto the ice. I caught my breath- it was an otter! Another movement to the left revealed a second otter had been sitting on the hutch and now slid down its grassy side to join its mate on the ice. I was astounded! In all my years of coming to this valley, I had never seen otters here. This warranted wading the creek and going out to the grassy point to get as close as I could to watch the otters. The dogs happily splashed across the water as I picked my way over the rocky bottom, and we all sat down in the sun-warmed grass and settled in.
Looking back to see if my partner had seen the otters, I saw him sitting in the grass watching them through his binoculars. He gave me a thumbs up. For the next half an hour or so, I watched the pair of sleek animals diving and coming up-sometimes popping up through the thin areas of the ice, then crawling out onto the thicker parts of the ice pan. They were diving in one area and would come up with long strands of grass, which they then ate. Something about the grass on the bottom of the pond in that area sure must have tasted good. One otter was more curious than the other, and would come up from a dive across from the dogs and me, snuffling and watching us intently. The closest it approached was around fifteen feet away. It rose up out of the water, its neck long and sleek, its dark eyes regarding us as much as its wild nature would let it. Its mate was happy to stay far away, out on the thicker ice, nosing its partner whenever it re-joined it, as if asking what it thought of those strange critters on the land.
All too soon it was time to get going. My gift was the sight of a pair of mergansers coming along the shoreline I had just vacated, as the dogs and I started back to the creek. I waited until they were lined up with the otters in the background, and snapped the photo. A “once in a lifetime” shot, for me.
With that amazing memory of the otters in my mind the rest of the day, somehow it didn’t matter that my species count was pretty dismal. When it was over and the group met at the bonfire by the Talkeetna River, turns out the total species count for the group was about average, standing at 61. Last year’s total was 46, which was not surprising, with all the ice on the ponds and lakes and no open rivers. 2012 had seen 64 species, and 2011 had seen 69 species. The banner year had been 2010, with 75 species. Robert Ambrose and Bill Fitzgerald (going “green”, on bicycles) had seen a remarkable 40 species and won “high count”, far above my total of 29 species. Surprises had been the first-ever Peregrin Falcon sighting, and a Merlin sighting. I had hoped to see Lapland Longspurs, Pipits, and Savannah Sparrows in the hayfields, but not this year. These species had been seen elsewhere, however. Another surprise was a Bohemian Waxwing sighting. Also surprising was the lack of shorebirds.
For the first time that I could recall, I also watched a few of the guys remove their shirts at the bonfire. The fire itself was kept at an all-time low. Usually the group is gathered close to it, drying out foot gear from the day’s slogging through snow and icy puddles. This year there was no snow on the shoreline, and we watched pans of ice and snow float down the rivers as gulls and terns plied the waters for food. You just never know, year to year, what Nature will bring to the North Country!
I talked with Kathy Ernst, who lives across from Saunder’s Field, and asked her what the situation with the cranes is now. She and husband Rick keep meticulous records on the comings and going of the cranes. She said the flock peaked a few days before Bird-A-Thon, with one hundred birds. Most left early-on, and didn’t return. She surmised that the lack of snow meant they were able to go to their nesting grounds early.
It’s pretty quiet at the ranch, as well. Usually the forest is alive with singing, courting sparrows and thrushes, kinglets and juncos, by now. There are so few that I can count the bird species singing at any time, on one hand. I keep hoping more will arrive. Maybe they will, now that the trees have leafed out.
Meanwhile, I await my first bumblebee sighting, and my first Tiger Swallowtail butterfly sighting. Summer is on the way!
By Robin Song
Writer’s Voice 051814