Natural Observations-Robin’s birdathon 2011

As always, this year’s Birdathon had surprises for its participants. Earth and Beyond contributor Robin Song tells about her day birding with a friend. Earth and Beyond is a locally produced program on KTNA. The audio runs 5:15. Text of the program is below.


It was the first Friday in May and the beginning of the annual 24-hour Birdathon. I had been looking forward to this for several weeks. As break-up commenced and the migratory bird species started returning to our area, my excitement grew. It looked like the weather was going to co-operate as I met my birding partner at his cabin. At six o’clock we logged in our first species, a downy woodpecker. We headed for Saunder’s Crane Sanctuary to add sandhill cranes to our growing list. We didn’t have a formal plan, choosing to be spontaneous. Heading back to Talkeetna, we stopped off at the north shore of the Big Su, adding gull species to the notebook. Ice floes floated by in the current as a dozen pintail ducks winged overhead. As I stopped the car before turning onto the Parks Highway, I suddenly spotted a black and white bird lifting off the forest floor directly across the road from our location. It was a magpie, and it gave us just a couple of seconds to view it before the bird settled back down onto the forest floor. We noted the time. I had no hope that we would be the ones to see the first magpie of the Bird-A-Thon, but it didn’t hurt to jot down the time, just in case.

Dropping my partner off and heading back to the ranch, I was pleased to hear a great horned owl calling from the forest that night. There had been a saw whet owl coming to the ranch off and on in the weeks leading up to Bird-A-Thon, but it didn’t show up in time to be counted.

Saturday was a busy day. From trumpeter swans to a white-crowned sparrow, we found thirty-eight species in all. Hiking down to a favorite birding spot on a pond, we enjoyed the warm sun as we watched several species, including Bonaparte’s gulls, horned grebes, red-necked phalaropes, a common loon, and several kinds of ducks. Snow patches were still on the forest floor, delighting my 7-month old Aussie pup, Lyra, who romped in the slushy mounds. Skeeters were not out in large numbers yet, but the waters of the pond were alive with tiny gnats and other flying insects, feeding all the birds who had arrived to take advantage of the food supply.

Lyra and I returned to the pond six days later and I scored my first sighting of a least sandpiper, and I was also privileged to watch a short-billed dowitcher. My first sighting of this species had also been at this pond, a few years ago. The horned grebes had moved on, but the loon had been joined by its mate. The pair of Arctic terns were still there and when they weren’t whipping above the water searching for insects along with the gulls, they stood side by side on a log jutting out of the top of the large beaver lodge, their red legs and feet looking disproportionately small. Their lives are spent largely on the wing, so they don’t have legs and feet made for perching. They are the longest-migrating bird, summering in Antarctica, then flying north to summer in the Arctic. They are the only bird who lives in perpetual summertime.

We arrived at the meeting place by the Talkeetna River a little before six pm, wanting to look for our last birds while we walked the shoreline. Other birders had arrived before us and a few had spotting scopes. I was able to watch my first red-breasted merganser of the year through a scope as the bird swam in the sparkling waters of the Big Susitna. Ice and snow lined the shores of the three rivers and ice floes drifted by as Arctic terns wheeled and dove into the open water, grabbing food. There were some surprises, as the meeting commenced and species were counted. A long-tailed jaeger had been spotted, along with a black scoter. The jaeger is a tundra-nesting bird, and was passing through on its way north. Turns out our team did get the first magpie sighting and so won the so-called “Sacred Magpie” pin to wear until the next Birdathon. I was delighted, having never won, before. Our species count was well below the winning number, but we bested our own count of the year before. It was a tired, but lively group of birders gathered on the sand, that night. Birding stories flew, dogs and kids played as chips and salsa were passed around. In all, it was a great Birdathon, and a wonderful start to the season of summer bird-watching. My personal thanks goes out to all the people who participated. They worked hard, hiking and listening, counting species and adding to the network of records kept in Alaska keeping track of the birds migrating to our state. The birds have come to nest and raise their young in the short, intense season. May it be a good one for birds and birders alike.

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