Natural Observations–fall migration

Some of the highlights of one birder’s experience of the fall migration. Natural Observations is written, hosted and produced by Robin Song. Photos by Robin Song.


With the annual fall migration winding down, I’m experiencing my usual “bird withdrawals”. There have been a few amazing surprises, however. A recent walk with Lyra in the hay fields flushed a snipe from the green-gold grass. A couple of days after that, another walk in the south fields produced an even bigger surprise. As Lyra headed out to my right, a movement to my left caught my eye, and I stopped, startled to watch a Short-eared Owl rise from the grass and silently head out over the field, first going east, then curving gracefully around to the line of trees along the drive. There it banked steeply, cutting through the trees and heading on over to the north hayfields. Since last winter was the first one in my memory that I had neither seen nor heard any owls, I was pleased to see this one on the ranch.


On the morning of September 24th, I heard a familiar sound on my way back from the barn. I thought all the Sandhill Cranes had migrated out of our area weeks ago, but here came a small flock, circling overhead. They were low, and as I stood watching them, I could see that they were going to land in the north hayfields. I sprinted for the cabin to get my camera. Jogging along the drive, I pondered why this small flock would be coming to the ranch.


There are three fields on the north side of the ranch’s drive, and the lay of the land is gently rolling hills, which were now hiding the cranes. Finally a few called and I traced them to the far end of the middle field. I walked along the forest berm that separates the fields, keeping well in the shadows. When the birds came into view, I was surprised to see several cranes standing in a cut section of the field. The birds were caught in the light of the rising sun. Their sentries alerted to my presence and I stood still, taking photos and counting birds, which were quite far away. Zooming in on the photos, I counted 40 cranes. I could hear the chirping of colts along with the low ‘purring’ sounds of the flock conversing as they stood-many of them preening. After several minutes, wings appeared by the slope to the left, and I realized there were more birds out of my sight in that area. I slowly stepped to my right a few paces, to see around the slope. A sentinel bird called an alarm and suddenly many crane heads popped up into view. I stopped instantly, as all crane eyes fixed on me. Though the birds were far away, they were skittish- or maybe it was simply time to move on. Whatever the excuse, the flock took wing, rising into the morning light, curving around to the east. They lined out across in front of me and I kept the camera trained on one spot, taking photos so I got the whole flock as they flew across. I scrambled through the strip of forest in time to watch the flock turn towards Baldy Mountain, then turn again, heading east, and then south. They kept low and were soon lost from my view behind the tree line. I heard their calls for a long time, as I stood, savoring the sound.


In all my years of caretaking Birch Creek Ranch, I have never seen more than six cranes here at any one time. Later, when I counted the birds in the photos, the total was approximately 110 cranes. What had brought them here, and whether they will ever stop by again, is a mystery. For me, the memory remains: the cranes in the morning light and the autumn colors. It made for a memorable migration scene here at the ranch.


Another gift was the family of Trumpeter Swans who graced the pond into which Twister Creek feeds. Even though the Spur Road runs alongside the west shore of the pond, and each time the family came out of the marsh and entered the pond to feed they drew a crowd, they didn’t seem to mind. Vehicles pulled over and people with cameras, iphones and video cams stood filming the swans who were just yards away, at times, feeding in the shallow water. The parents had raised three glorious cygnets, which were healthy and vigorous. A small flock of American Widgeon ducks kept them constant company, darting in to grab pieces from the swans as they fed on aquatic plants. The swans weren’t too keen on this, and I often saw them jab at the ducks with their beaks, the ducks dodging by rowing their wings in a cascade of water.


I visited the swans whenever I could, and one memorable sunny day, after they had fed, they came into the deeper part of the pond and began to bathe. Mother swan climbed out onto the shore on the east side, to keep watch while her family bathed. Dad and the cygnets would preen their bodies, and then one cygnet would spread its wings and row itself across the water. This would trigger a vigorous rowing session with the other cygnets, which would row in a circle around their preening dad. Great wings flashing, the three would send water spraying in all directions. After a few circuits, the cygnets would stop, resuming preening again. Then one after another would roll over in the water, great white bellies to the sky, pale orange legs kicking in the air. Dad joined in, his shimmering white belly towards the sky, great black legs kicking high into the air. They would stay on their backs quite awhile, then roll over, heads rising off the water, sending sparkling drops flying. I wondered how their heads were while they were under the water- did they hold them vertical or horizontal? One thing for sure- a bathing swan is a sight to behold. Noisy, boisterous, excited birds splashed, rolled and swam in the pond, sending the little ducks out of the area. Eventually dad swan traded places with mom, and soon she was splashing and rolling on her back, too, as the cygnets continued to preen around her.


When everyone had finished bathing, they headed single-file for the east side of the pond making their way into the marsh channels, and were soon lost from my view.


I got word that the family was practicing flying, a few days after that, and two local Talkeetnans watched the whole family finally take flight and head west, then south. I so wanted to see them fly, but I knew the chances of being there when they flew were slim, for me. There hadn’t been any cygnets on Fish Lake, this summer, so seeing any cygnets in the area- let alone right next to the road – was special indeed.


More than a week had gone by when a friend told me the swan family was back in the pond, on October first. I was stunned. I thought they had left on their migration. I drove to the pond, and pulled over when I saw ripples on the water. Sure enough- the family was very close to the west side of the pond. I got my camera set up quietly on the gravel trail flanking the pond. The swans were quite used to people, and hardly reacted to my presence. I wound up staying almost two hours with the family. The light was not the best for photography- high overcast, weak shadows. But I take photos for painting ideas when the light is not co-operating. The fall colors, while past their peak, were still adding shades of gold to the scenery.


As it turned out, my long-held dream came true. After a long feeding session, the family moved to the east shore of the farthest pond. All climbed out and stood preening on the grass. Then mom and dad began dipping their heads and calling. As they grew more excited, I could feel something about to happen. Then dad suddenly spread his great wings, then ran across the water and launched into the air. He flew towards me, then banked south, circling the pond, calling. Mom and the cygnets stood watching him, but none followed. He landed and swam to their side of the pond, climbing out to join them on the grass. They preened awhile, then the whole scene repeated. Mom and dad did the head-bobbing and calling, then dad suddenly spread his wings and took off running across the water until airborne. This time he flew in a large figure-8 over the pond and marsh. He landed at the far northwest end of the pond and waited while his family joined him.


When they began to eat again, I walked back to my vehicle, parked at the southwest end of the pond. After I changed the camera battery, I glanced at the pond just in time to see the entire swan family flying towards my end of the water! I grabbed the camera and jammed the foot of the monopod in the gravel and hit the focus button as the birds came winging across in front of me. I managed to get some photos in the few seconds I had. As the family settled in to feed once more, my heart returned to its normal rate and I smiled to think I had just witnessed the family in flight. I was still smiling as I drove back to the ranch. That night I awoke to hear rain on the cabin roof. Whether I’ll get to see the swan family again before they head out of the area is doubtful. But that’s alright- with my photos I can re-visit my experiences with the swans- and cranes- whenever I wish. It has been a magnificent autumn, enhanced-as always- by the beautiful migratory birds.

By Robin Song for KTNA     100613FallMigration





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