photos by Robin Song
On this Earth and Beyond segment, Natural Observations host and producer Robin Song tells about her experiences during the annual birdathon. Audio runs 7 minutes. Text follows.
As the first Saturday in May approached, birders in Talkeetna and Trapper Creek watched the weather with trepidation. Spring was passing with glacial slowness this year, and most ponds and lakes were still sleeping under blankets of snow and ice. Sightings of songbirds and waterfowl had been scarce indeed in the days prior to this year’s annual Bird-A-Thon. It even snowed all day on Friday. As the six p.m. start of the 24-hour bird count approached, big wet flakes slammed down out of the sky. I had watched very soggy-looking chickadees and woodpeckers coming to the feeders throughout the day, and my heart went out to them. I was happy to put fresh peanut butter out for them.
I didn’t spend much time birding Friday evening. I went to Talkeetna and searched for a magpie, hoping for first sighting, earning the Magpie Pin, but the corvids had disappeared a couple of weeks prior. I had fed 22 at the ranch all winter, but one day when I watched the flock take flight and head east something told me they wouldn’t be back. Sure enough, they didn’t come to the barn roof for their dog food kibbles the next morning. Time to build nests and hunt insects emerging from their winter sleep.
Saturday morning dawned gray with heavy overcast. Well, at least it wasn’t snowing, and the shifting clouds gave hope to maybe a little sun later in the day. As I did my barn chores a sudden sound caught my attention-a Greater Yellowlegs called from its perch atop a tall spruce at the south end of the veggie garden clearing. The first of the season had arrived just in time to be put on my birding list. I took that as a good sign. I watched and listened for a magpie, and finally at 9:40 I caught the flash of black and white as the bird whisked through the forest west of the Kingsbury’s cabin. It called once, just to confirm its identity.
My birding partner and I drove to most of the usual sites that day, but found several places inaccessible. Roads hadn’t been plowed open yet and due to injured feet, I was unable to hike in. On the way to the Yoder Road bridge, hoping to find dippers along the Montana Creek tributaries where they had been all winter, I spotted a pair of Bald Eagles sitting in cottonwoods not far off the road. Ravens were also in attendance, which told me there must be moose remains nearby. One eagle sat with wings spread, drying its feathers after it had been feeding in the wet snow. No dippers, but I was pleased to watch the eagles awhile.
At Saunder’s Crane Sanctuary I photographed 20 Sandhill Cranes walking in the dirt road on the northwest side of the barley field. The first pair had arrived only a few days before. In years past the fields had been covered with hundreds of cranes and songbirds had filled the forests while hawks hunted ducks amongst the cranes, but this year it was entirely different. I was hoping to hear a sparrow or two, but no such luck. I went over to Red Little’s farm, next to the Sanctuary. The day before, he had gone out in the snowstorm to check on his chickens and had heard a single White-Crowned Sparrow singing. After a visit, I went and stood out by a big old spruce in his yard, watching a few Common Redpolls moving amongst the branches. I listened for that elusive sparrow, but it had apparently moved on.
Driving back to Talkeetna, my last birds for the day were a pair of Common Mergansers standing on the ice beside a little stretch of open water coming into Little Montana Lake. An immature bald eagle flew by overhead, following an adult which had taken flight out of a birch as we had pulled off the highway. It was on this lake several years ago I that had seen my very first Horned Grebes. 7 males had swum in sunlit water during that year’s Bird-A-Thon, and I was delighted to mark down my first sighting. For me, I never forget my first sightings of each species. (Bald Eagle? Spotting a white head and tail amongst dark spruce from the deck of the Malaspina Ferry, coming to Alaska in August of 1980. Townsend Warbler? Bear Mt. Trail, Skilak lake, Kenai, June, 2009. And so forth.)
It was a slog through the wet snow, getting to the gathering near the Talkeetna River after Bird-A-Thon ended Saturday night. The huge ice blocks still blocked the shoreline, so we had our campfire in amongst the winter-bare trees. No terns and gulls circled above the rivers this year. The total species count of 47 was the lowest in the 20 years of the Bird-A-Thon. (The second lowest was 50 species, the highest was 85 species, logged in 2005.) Missing for the first time: American Widgeon and Bonaparte’s Gull. Missing for the second time in 20 years: Arctic Tern.
There were some surprises in the count, including Robins, Canvasback Ducks, and Lapland Longspurs. (Surprises only because migratory bird sightings had been so scarce before the Bird-a-Thon.) Robert Ambrose scored the highest species count for the “green” division, using his fat-tire bike and hiking. With a count of 32, he had his usual “good bird karma” sighting the only White-Winged Crossbills, and a flock of Tundra Swans had flown over him. Chris and Barb Mannix tied with Deborah Brocke and Jeff Robinson for the highest species count, squeaking past Robert with 33 species.
To my surprise, I managed to win back the Magpie pin. It made up for a somewhat disappointing count, for me. I missed hearing the songbirds and seeing the many ducks, mergansers, grebes and swans of past years, but I know the snow will melt eventually, and our feathered friends will once again grace our part of the North Country. I just need to be a little more patient.