Robin Song tells her story from the local birding event. Text follows.
Friday, May 4th– a day I had been looking forward to- finally arrived. It was the first day of our annual Birdathon, which would commence at 6pm. During the next 24 hours participants would count as many bird species as they could. Some would choose to stay at home, watching birds in their immediate vicinity. Others would bicycle along the bike trail, stopping to make short treks into the forests to search for birds. Most of us would use vehicles, driving to trailheads to hike to ponds and lakes. We would also drive up to Saunder’s Crane Sanctuary in Trapper Creek, and for many of us this would be our first visit to the Sanctuary this spring, to see the cranes stopping there during their migration.
I was on a personal mission to keep the prized Magpie Pin for another year. It is awarded to the birder who sees the first magpie of the Birdathon, and I was delighted to win it last year for the first time. My birding partner and I had seen the bird at the same time, but he graciously let me wear the pin. The evening before, I had walked Lyra on the shoreline of the Big Su Slough at the end of the Village Airstrip and had seen a pair of common mergansers on the water there, and-in the tree limbs above us- four magpies. I made plans to return to that spot on Friday evening, hoping to log in the first magpie. I picked up my birding partner and we set off for Talkeetna. We walked the trail in the forest along the bluff above the Slough. No sign of the magpies or the mergansers.
That set the template for our birding adventures. We headed for the remains of a moose where I had seen magpies each time I had passed there, all winter. None today. We drove up to the Transfer Site, and my hopes rose when I saw several ravens in the area. Usually magpies hung out with the ravens. Not a magpie in sight. We checked off other species, noting that many ponds were still covered in ice. It was melting fast in the lengthening spring sunlight, but waterfowl were not stopping in their usual places.
We checked the ponds at the Water Treatment Plant and found a few Bonapart’s gulls there, a greater yellowlegs, and mew gulls. A pair of Harrier hawks glided by high overhead. Suddenly my birding partner pointed above the treeline to the east and asked if that was a magpie flying by. Sure enough- magpie, 8:18pm. Now we would have to wait until the Saturday night meeting to see if we had the earliest sighting.
Next morning I arose early did my chores and set off to pick up my partner. En route, I added a pair of bufflehead ducks to my growing list. We went to a small lake, which has proven to be a birding bonanza, and this year did not disappoint. I even found a shed moose antler lying on a snow patch, on our hike to the lake. Bonaparte’s gulls dotted the dark water, along with several species of ducks, yellowlegs, and Arctic terns. The sun warmed the gold grass lying flat from last year, and the creek gurgled over rocks where we stood on the shore, watching Nature’s springtime spectacle. The Bonaparte’s gulls hunted insects on the water’s surface, and then one would spot a little fish and leap into the air, diving straight down into the water to nab the fish. Close by, a flock of green-winged teals courted, the males raising part-way out of the water to arch their necks over, beaks touching breast, displaying to the watching females.
It was tough to leave the peaceful valley, but we needed to get going to the Crane Sanctuary. This spring brought a surprise to the barley field; a flock of around 300 northern pintail ducks had come in with the sandhill cranes. I had heard about them, but was still stunned by the sheer number of ducks. A harrier hawk had scared the ducks into flight as we arrived, and my mind had a hard time grasping the number of birds I was seeing in the air. Pintails don’t make a lot of noise when they fly, just a squeaky high-pitched quacking from a few birds within the flock. It was almost like watching a silent movie, seeing the flock circling over the field. They all landed at once amongst the 200 or so cranes, settling onto snow patches to eat the barley lying on the ground from last year. A few mallards and teals were also in the flock, along with 9 white-fronted geese. One swan stood amongst them, and zooming in on my photos later, I saw that it was a tundra swan.
We had been searching for mergansers, grebes and rusty blackbirds during our birding, and had talked to a few folks along the way who had told us where to look. They had seen them, but the birds had already moved on, by the time we got there. We did find a pair of trumpeter swans, swimming amongst American widgeons, teals, and goldeneye ducks. We didn’t find any loons, which was a surprise. The prior two years we had added common loons to our list.
When we left the Crane Sanctuary, I drove up Petersville Road to the site of an osprey nest. I had visited there several times, in recent years, but had never actually seen ospreys there. I got out to photograph the nest, and my partner said he thought he saw a bird on the nest. Getting to a better vantage point, I was surprised to see a head poke up over the rim of the nest. In a few moments the osprey launched off the nest, and circled overhead. I was so pleased to add the osprey to our birding list.
When Birdathon ended, we all met on the shore of the Talkeetna River and compared notes. It was a tired but happy group, chatting about their birding adventures. The species count was down from last year, and there were a few surprises, like the osprey. The birding pair who had won last year’s highest-species count also won this year. They had birded a phenomenal 19 and ½ hours, total. They had definitely earned the right to wear the goofy bird hats and dance around the fire a bit. I lost my Magpie Pin to a birder who had seen a magpie at a little past 6pm, Friday night. Turns out she and her birding partner started at the Talkeetna River, and while my partner and I were searching along the Big Su Slough, magpies were just a half-mile away up river. Ah well, there’s always next year.
Birding is a great excuse to get outside-whether watching birds in the nearby forest or hiking to a lake. New species keep arriving, and I even saw a fledgling black-capped chickadee in mid May. The morning after Birdathon a gold-crowned sparrow arrived at the barn. A few days later, two male white-crowned sparrows were in the raspberry patch. On the morning of May 16 I heard new voices calling and looked up to see three swallows circling overhead. Lincoln and Savannah sparrows will be arriving soon. There are still patches of snow along the edges of the hayfields, but frogs are singing in the marshes and most of the cranes (and all of the pintails) have left Saunder’s field and are heading for their summer nesting grounds. Leaves are unfurling on the trees and I found my first fiddlehead ferns protruding above last year’s grass, heads curled tightly. I see butterflies and bumblebees every day, now, and a few mosquitoes remind me of the hordes about to arrive. It’s still in the twenties, overnight, but warm enough during the day to sun-dry my newly-washed clothes. It’s been a cold spring, to be sure, but signs of summer are everywhere. And the birds are back – life is good.