In this Earth and Beyond program, a flock of Bohemian Waxwings and a Bald Eagle sighting make for a special day. Robin Song is host, producer, and photographer. Text follows audio, which runs about five and a half minutes.
A walk along the Talkeetna River on November 7th with friends, so our dogs could have a play date, turned out to be a day of extraordinary birding for me. We had been there about twenty minutes when suddenly an eagle launched off the top of a tall spruce west of us. Apparently it had been there all along, watching us, unperturbed as two dogs romped in the snow and three people walked and talked below its tree. The nearby trees hid the eagle from our view until it flew, then we stood watching as it headed upriver, lit up by the afternoon sun. It curved to the south and landed atop a tall spruce on the shore of the river just northeast of us. I quickly switched lenses on my camera and quietly approached the eagle’s tree. The bird was surveying the area to the northwest, only occasionally bringing its distant gaze back to drop a glance at me. I photographed the majestic adult bald eagle, bathed in full sunlight, for many minutes, until something caught its full attention to the east and the bird launched and flew upriver. I had seen the remains of a few salmon along the shoreline when I had arrived at the river, and knew the eagle would remain in the area until every last carcass was gone. Only a few eagles will stay in this area through the winter- the rest will head south, to the Anchorage Bowl- or perhaps on down to Haines- where there will be a more ample food supply. The late run of chum salmon in the Chilkat River outside Haines draws eagles from as far South as Washington State, and from all over Alaska. Depending on the run of fish, there can be over 2,000 eagles gathered in the river valley. I wondered if this eagle would be heading there soon. The eagles can remain in the Haines area well into January, or even later, depending on the weather.
After our dogs had played for a couple of hours, it was time for Lyra and I to return to the ranch. I headed on out of East Talkeetna, and while driving slowly in front of the airport, I watched a bird fly across the road. My brain told me what species it was, but I could hardly believe it. I tracked the bird to where it landed in a Mountain Ash tree on the lawn in front of the K-2 office. To my amazement, it turned out my brain was correct- it was a Bohemian Waxwing and it joined a sizeable flock working in amongst the berries. I turned and pulled into the drive circling the lawn and parked. I got out carefully, so as not to spook the birds. The sun was getting low in the West and I needed to work around to get the sun behind me without disturbing the flock. Waxwings emit a soft, high-pitched trill, and I was charmed to hear the sound I had not heard in a long time.
Because I live outside Talkeetna, I don’t get to see the daily comings and goings of birds in the town itself, and so miss the migrating flocks, such as these waxwings. The last time I had seen waxwings in Talkeetna had been one December day in the late 1990s. They had been in the choke cherry trees at the end of Main Street, and I had stood watching them, charmed and amazed. In the years since, I have seen them on occasion in Wasilla and Anchorage, working on Mountain Ash berries. Once, in 2007, I happened to spot a sizeable flock in Mountain Ash trees about one mile along Petersville Road, in Trapper Creek. The autumn sun lit them in soft golden light as they ate berries and trilled their soft song.
As I stood watching and photographing them now, on this crisp November evening, I was entranced. A few pairs fed the bright red berries to each other. The berries themselves were past their prime and were beginning to wrinkle, but this didn’t phase the birds, who plucked the berries, tossed them into the air, caught and gulped them in a blur of motion. The waxwings were constantly moving, leaning over to pluck berries hanging in clumps, or stretching up tall to reach clumps hanging over their heads. Birds flew between the pair of Mountain Ash trees, and also came from and went to the forest nearby. With sunset fast approaching, they were feeding energetically, for soon they would need to go to roost for the night. The birds were plump and beautiful, and moved like feathered acrobats amongst the red berries. It was pure pleasure to watch and listen to them.
I knew they wouldn’t be in our area for long. Perhaps they had come down from the Fairbanks area, which had been far colder than here in late October. They will continue to head South, dining on berries as they go, staying ahead of snowstorms and the deep cold that will put an end to the berry crop. Eventually they will winter across central Canada, spreading East to the Maritimes and down into the Northern U.S. States. It was pure chance that had crossed my path with theirs, that early November day. Sometimes a birding event just gets handed to you in an unexpected and wonderful way. That day it was an eagle and a rare flock of Bohemian Waxwings. I drove home with a smile that wouldn’t quit.
By Robin Song