Natural Observations-spring

Photos by Robin Song

In this locally produced Earth and Beyond program, writer and host Robin Song describes the animal and bird activity in May, and tells what happens when she finds a little warbler in a pond. Audio is about seven minutes. Text is below.

As summer begins to unfold, I can state that, in my opinion, it was a very nice spring. May became sunny and warm, with even a few hot days, towards the end. Snow patches at the edge of the hay fields and deep within the forest stayed until the last week in the month, much to the delight of my Aussie pup Lyra, who was still in the process of shedding her heavy winter coat. During our walks in the hayfields, Lyra would race for the mounds and leap into the slushy snow, sending it flying. She would then roll and lay in the white slush. After awhile we would leave the snow to continue our walk through the hayfields. Heading back and passing brush piles and parked farm equipment, sparrows would start up and fly off, scolding us. I knew there were probably nests hidden in the brush, and robins have been known to build nests under parked vehicles. Whenever we startled birds, I made note of where they had flown out of the grass and brush, and didn’t go to that area again. On one walk to the snow patch I happened to glance up into a young birch growing at the edge of the field and was surprised to see a robin’s nest about seven feet up in the tree. I changed directions and used my telephoto lens to snap a picture. The nest seemed a bit exposed, to me, but it’s her chosen spot. Only birds know why they choose one spot over another.

Violet-green and tree swallows returned to the ranch, and two pairs of swallows are now busy building their nests, using various materials I placed in a plant pot for them. I wake each morning to the calls of the swallows as they awaken and fly high into the air, chasing their insect breakfast.

Most nights I work on editing photos on the computer, which is on a desk under the south window. To give my eyes a rest, I glance out the window frequently.At 11:19 one night, I glanced up and thought I saw Jody the horse walking along the drive, about sixty feet in front of the cabin. I caught my breath when I realized I was looking at a mama moose with a tiny calf. I quietly opened the cabin door, camera in hand. The hinge squeaked and the pair stopped instantly, looking towards the cabin. I snapped one photo, then mom and calf continued walking along the drive, turning into the forest as they came to the corner of the nursery fence, built to keep moose  from the currants, raspberries and apple trees growing within. The calf looked to be just a few days old and I was happy that my annual wish to see a baby moose had been fulfilled. I wouldn’t have guessed I’d see one walking in front of the cabin!

As the days grew warm and then downright hot, I took Lyra and two dogs I was sitting, on hikes to nearby water systems. Our first was through the forest to a large pond. A lone female goldeneye duck swam in the water. I came upon masses of frog’s eggs here and there along the north shoreline. Tiny brown tadpoles could be seen in the transparent eggs. I was pleased to find this evidence that some of Alaska’s tough little amphibians had survived the winter.

In late May I took the dogs down the hill past the end of the ranch’s drive, to an artesian spring which comes out of the ground at the edge of the forest. The spring runs into a small pond, and I searched for frog’s eggs, finding a few small masses on the north side of the pond. On the east shore I found tiny marsh violets and knelt on the grass to take a few photos. Suddenly I heard a gentle splashing in the water behind me. I was hoping to photograph a frog, so I turned carefully. To my astonishment, I found a male orange-crowned warbler laying spread-eagle in the water, its beak pointing up, dark eyes wide. I could see the little bird was in trouble, so I carefully placed my right hand around its body and lifted it from the cool water. The bird hardly struggled and I placed it in moss and crowberry plants growing on top of a nearby tree stump. When I released it, the bird spread its wings and tail and fluffed its feathers, closing its eyes, laying on the plants. I had placed it so the sun could dry its breast feathers and warm it. The warbler’s sharp beak pointed towards the sky, but it kept its eyes closed. The bird did not look like it was going to be able to fly anytime soon, and I didn’t want to leave it there to be vulnerable to any passing predators. I put my second camera lens in my pocket and gently placed the bird in the cloth camera bag. I hiked as carefully as I could up the steep ridge. Back at the cabin I placed the warbler in a small bird cage. I keep meal worms for just such an occasion, as most birds will eat meal worms. I planned to let the bird rest awhile, then offer it some food. I quietly closed the spare bedroom door, leaving the bird to recover in peace. In about fifteen minutes I went in to check on the bird and found that it had expired. I examined the small body, not finding any injuries or broken bones that I could feel. Why the bird had wound up in the water remains a mystery. That I happened to be there at that moment, and so saved it from drowning, but wasn’t able to help it survive, is perplexing. Everything lives and dies in its own time, and I hope I was able to help it to bask in the warm sunshine a little while longer before it was due to leave this life. Sometimes all we can do is to ease a creature’s passing.

Later in the month the May Day tree in front of the cabin burst into bloom. The masses of tiny white blossoms sent their lovely fragrance into the air. So far I have seen only one bumble bee, a few lady bugs, one spider, a few beetles, and one moth on the tree. I hope the Tiger Swallowtail butterflies will arrive soon, to flutter amongst the flowers, and more bumble bees will also arrive, to add their familiar buzz to the sounds of summer.

Every day bird song fills the air, and I pause to see if I can identify each species I hear. It’s a daily test, with more birds arriving to add to the challenge. While I was walking the dogs in the fields one afternoon in the second week of May, a pair of sandhill cranes appeared over the forest, circling then heading northeast. In the fourth week a kingfisher  arrived, giving its staccato call as it flew over the ranch in two wide circles, as if announcing its return. An immature bald eagle flew over one morning in the third week of the month, exciting all the swallows in the area, who took off after the raptor, making sure it kept going as it headed over the ranch.

Gardens are being planted and baby vegetables are placed in neat rows. The short, intense season of summer is upon us. Each day is a gift, and I appreciate being able to experience yet another summer here in our magnificent north country.

(June 2, 2011)

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