On this week’s Earth and Beyond program, Robin Song gathers information from the area birders who were here to see what happens when there’s a snowfall during bird migration in the second half of May.
As a snowstorm moved through the area on May 17th, I was heading for Homer on a birding trip and so missed what turned out to be an amazing occurrence. My first clue of what was going on was a voicemail on my phone the afternoon of the 18th. I wasn’t getting phone reception so any calls were going straight to voicemail, and when I checked them I found one from Leilani, back at Birch Creek Ranch. They were witnessing all kinds of birds appearing in the drive between their house and the first greenhouse and she wanted to know if I was seeing anything unusual in my travels. I wasn’t. Potter Marsh was practically devoid of birds when I drove past it early Saturday morning, and Summit Lake was still frozen over. Tern Lake had some open water and a few terns, ducks and shorebirds were present there, but not in unusual numbers. I drove out of the light snowfall by Cooper’s Landing and into sunshine the rest of the trip.
When I arrived back at the ranch on the 21st, I got an earful of what had been going on in my absence. Saturday was the most spectacular day at the ranch. Al told me there was a large variety of birds on open patches of ground and all over the snow on the drive, eating seeds and insects, along with birds flying, birds perched on the garden fence and coming and going in the forest. He watched a Northern Harrier Hawk chasing birds across the drive in the morning. Robins were the most numerous species. There was a small flock of Lapland Longspurs, a pair of Pectoral sandpipers (not seen at the ranch before), and all the species which had been arriving this spring, including juncos, White-crowned Sparrows, Pine Siskins, swallows, etc. The year-round residents- the chickadees, woodpeckers, and gray jays, were probably wondering what was going on.
Al needed to make a trip off the ranch that afternoon and spotted a pair of rare Horned Larks on the ground by the Marcus turnoff on Mastodon Rd. Back at the ranch later on, he found that most of the birds had moved on. In a low spot which had gathered water out in the hay fields, he found a small duck- possibly a Green-winged Teal. A few Pectoral Sandpipers and longspurs were scattered out in the fields. He noted that where the ground was wet from the previous night’s snow, there were lots of tracks of differing sizes. He guessed sandpipers, yellowlegs, pipits, longspurs, etc. had been out in the snow.
I went on line and found some reports sent in from our local birders, including Robert Ambrose, who had been out on his bike during the snowfall on the 18th. At the Fish Lake outlet he found a large flock of Long-billed Dowitchers and a few Pectoral Sandpipers “feeding voraciously along the grassy edges” of the creek shoreline. Three Whimbrels were on the far shore. He also found a flock of approximately 20 American Pipits “foraging along the snowy water’s edge” and alongside the road.
Laurie Evans posted a sighting of a pair of Northern Wheatears near the intersection of Petersville Rd. and the Parks Highway on the 18th– an unusual species for our area.
I also talked with a couple of birders on the phone. Sandra Porter gave me this remarkable account. She and her husband Dave noticed birds coming in to their homestead the night of the storm on the 17th. The next morning Dave set off for the Post Office. She said he was “literally pushing birds down the road”, as there were “thousands and thousands of mainly Lapland Longspurs all over the road.” Dave returned to get Saundra. As they set out again she saw a raven fly over, carrying a longspur.
The storm had brought migrating birds down from the sky in large flocks. But insects were also not flying and the newly arrived birds were hard-pressed to find food. People were noticing the swallows, which had been here for a few weeks, flying with feathers fluffed in an effort to keep warm. Normally they catch insects flying in the air, but they were observed flying to the snow and water to pick any dead insects they could find. The Porters scattered seed at their place to help the birds. Saundra said: “We started out with around 100 Lapland Longspurs the first day, then most moved on and a core group of around 30 birds stayed for the next three days. The longspurs were beautiful in their full breeding plumage.”
The people who went to Saunder’s Crane Sanctuary to see what was going on there observed longspurs alongside the highway. Down Petersville Rd, east, in what is known locally as Bradley’s Field, there were hoards of sandpipers. Saturday morning longspurs, and other birds were all over the snow in the Trapper Creek Post Office parking lot, then, as the snow melted, they became harder to see. At Saunder’s there were many more American Pipits than usual, along with Hudsonian Godwits, dowitchers, and sandpipers. Large flocks of longspurs flew then dropped to the patches of barley.
Deborah Brocke and her husband Jeff were also out observing what the storm brought. They made several forays to any open water in the Talkeetna vicinity and saw many sandpipers, dowitchers and pipits. They also saw more than usual numbers of solitary sandpipers, greater and lesser yellowlegs, and phalaropes. They observed many species of ducks, also Red-necked Grebes, gulls, and Surf Scoters. Not many sparrows and thrushes were to be seen in the falling snow, but Deb scored a light-morph Swainson’s Hawk flying over, and a pair of Northern Harriers.
One of the more unusual sightings in the storm: a Great Blue Heron in Sunshine Creek, west. As local birders watched, the heron caught a small fish out of the water, then startled as a Bald Eagle flew over. The heron took flight, calling as it flew. Deb was able to get a photo posted on line. They went back Tuesday night, and found most of the snow had melted away by then- from both the winter and the new storm. Deb noted that the heron could still be there, but its camouflage is so good that you could be looking right at it and think you were looking at grass and sticks and not see it. When a heron stands still it vanishes before your eyes.
There was also a posting on line about a major snowstorm moving through eastern interior Alaska May 12th through 14th. It brought observations of “unprecedented numbers of sparrows, warblers, flycatchers, and shorebirds in very poor physical condition.” Bud Johnson, Producer and Host of Acoustic Accents, lives in Tok and posted the following: (in part:) “There are presently 100,000+ sparrows in Tok and the surrounding area right now. I have never seen anything like this, EVER. We drove home from Homer yesterday and for the last 15 miles on Tok Cut Off there were continuous flocks on both sides of the road. …Right now there are at least 500 [sparrows] in my yard. … I think the weather has put them down and the snow yesterday left nothing but the roads uncovered. The grocery store here sold all its bird feed in one day!”
From what the birders told me, it was pretty much over by the 19th. The storm had passed, the sun melted the snow, and the greater mass of birds had continued with their migration. A few stayed on for awhile, perhaps some will nest in our area. For birders, it was a bittersweet time. While it’s always exciting to see bird species in numbers you don’t normally see, and to see some you may get to check off your Life List, you also feel for the birds struggling in the cold and snow during their migration. Food is the major issue and many will not make it to their nesting grounds because they will run out of fuel. But for those who do, they will be stronger for having come through this May storm, and so they will pass those genes on to the next generation.
With the trees leafing out and more bumble bees flying daily, the next chapter begins. Already fledgling chickadees are following their parents to the May Day tree by the cabin, hunting insects. I wish all those hardy migratory birds a rich and wonderful summer.
By Robin Song