Natural Observations by Robin Song

Winter Birding 011313


As the annual Winter Bird Count for our area drew near, I watched the weather reports. It looked like we were heading for a warming spell. This would be the third winter in a row that we would be getting a thaw in late December, early January. While a break from the cold snaps is nice, there is a point where the temperature can get too warm. That’s when things start to thaw.


The snow gets wet and punchy and if rain falls with the snow, ice crust forms on top of the snow. While winter rain is commonplace in areas like Southeast and even Homer, it’s not, for our area, and dealing with black ice on the roads, icy trails and slick porch steps is treacherous. Skiing on the slippery crust is not fun, so I planned on staying on the ranch and counting birds coming to my feeders, as I had done for the past several Counts.


In the Winter Count there is a Count Week, where any unusual birds seen 3 days before and 3 days after the Count Day are added into the Count. During recent trips to Talkeetna I had occasionally seen a Ruffed Grouse high in the birch trees alongside Mastodon and Birch Creek Road. I was hoping to get this bird in the Count. I also had hopes to hear or see an owl and maybe a ptarmigan. I had not seen the tracks of ptarmigan around the ranch so far this winter. The warm weather meant they were probably staying higher up on the hillsides in the area, where they could get at the bushes they favored, as our meager snowfall had not yet covered over this food source. I had not heard any owls this winter, either, but I always listened, whenever I went outdoors.


I had been getting reports from the other Birding Groups about the results of their Bird Counts, which are held at different times. They had been logging in some fantastic birds. In Cordova they broke records with 3 Eruasian Collared Doves (former record: 1), and 148 Chestnut-backed Chickadees (former record: 123). Pretty spectacular for two species “not supposed” to be in Alaska at all! They also had a Peregrine Falcon (tied with the record of one). They also get sea birds, including species which winter-over, after summering high in the Arctic. Among these is the wonderful Yellow-billed Loon- a species on my own Bucket List.


In Anchorage they were excited to add up a total of 43 species for their Count Week. With many creeks in the city and with Cook Inlet, they get to count in species including ducks, a kingfisher, sandpipers, plus ptarmigan up on the hillsides and songbirds at the various feeders around town. This Count was exciting indeed, as they have been keeping tabs on a few exceptional birds, including a rare Dusky Thrush, a Gyrfalcon, a few Rusty Blackbirds, a Cedar Waxwing (another species “not supposed” to be anywhere near Alaska!) and two Townsend’s Solitares. A Snowy Owl was also seen in Eagle River in December but was not seen during Count Week.


Birders were buzzing in the Matanuska Valley when their Count totals came out. They had a new high for Bald Eagle sightings: 94 total (64 adults), previously the count was 71. Bohemian Waxwings totaled 1,409. A new species for Count Day was the Gray-Crowned Rosy Finch, with a total of 8. Previously a few had only been seen during Count Week. Total species count: 26. Previous record: 35.


As Count Day dawned, all the usual species were present at my feeders save one. For the past two winters in a row, a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches had stayed past the summer and on through the winter. They had raised a family on the ranch this past summer and I heard their buzzy calls well into the autumn. But when the early cold snap hit, a couple of weeks before I hung up my winter feeders, I stopped hearing their calls. I was hoping they would return, once the feeders and suet were up, but no nuthatches have graced my area so far this winter, much to my disappointment.


The temperature had climbed to 25 above zero by dawn at just past eleven. The high for the day was 34 degrees. After logging in the birds at the feeders and coming to the suet, I headed up the long drive, which winds through the ranch. I kept an eye out for any sign of grouse and listened for birds-especially for any diurnal owls. No such luck. The resident pair of ravens flew over the dogs, keeping an eye on me, along with a few magpies. I put dog food kibbles on top of the flat barn roof each morning and they were perhaps hoping I had some more handouts for them. The dogs sniffed in the tracks of snowshoe hares alongside the drive- evidence of the night’s activity.


Back at the ranch I loaded the dogs into the car and drove on out to Mastodon road, deciding to drive as far as Marcus turnoff, then turn around and drive past the ranch to the end of the road and then back to the ranch. I drove slowly, windows down, listening and watching for birds. A small flock of red polls flew overhead. They are frequently on the road picking sand the grader has left, adding the grit to their crops. Coming around a bend, my heart skipped a beat as I spotted the Ruffed Grouse on the road. It was walking alongside the snow berm, and quickened its pace as it spotted my vehicle. I slowed, reaching for my camera. The bird climbed the berm and strode over it, ducking under brush and heading on into the forest. I had no chance to get a photo before it had disappeared in the snowy brush. Only the dogs and I were witness to its presence. I was so pleased to see it, nonetheless.



The grouse was the prize of my Bird Count Day. I had heard a Sharp-shinned Hawk calling in the forest behind the hay storage barn during Count Week, but no owls got added to my list. The day before the Count I had made a trip to Talkeetna and spotted four Mallard drakes on the pond across the road from Fish Lake. Why ducks would be in our area this far into the winter, I had no idea.


One thing about Alaska- winters are rarely the same, year to year. I am ever grateful to the birds that come to my feeders, for they add a lively grace to the short daylight hours. Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Pine Grosbeaks, Red Polls, Gray Jays, Magpies, Ravens- each has its own unique page in the book of winter. Farther out in the forest the grouse, ptarmigan, hawks, and owls add their chapters as well. Each has its particular skills and adaptations to get it through the long winter. I admire them, while I stay inside my heated cabin and think about them out there in the cold darkness. But with Solstice and another Winter Bird Count behind us, we are slowly turning towards longer days and eventually the sun putting out warmth again. The birds know, I’m sure. Maybe that’s why they sing, each winter day.

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