As the Autumn passes along and winter draws near, I find myself reflecting upon the summer. As a birder, the seasons, for me, are marked by the comings and goings of certain species of birds. July marked my first year anniversary of living in the cabin where I am now, in the Shade Tree subdivision, near the “Y”. While the cabin was being built last year and I was visiting the site, I noted which birds were passing through on the Spring migration. I watched for them this year.
As the Autumn passes along and winter draws near, I find myself reflecting upon the summer. As a birder, the seasons, for me, are marked by the comings and goings of certain species of birds. July marked my first year anniversary of living in the cabin where I am now, in the Shade Tree subdivision, near the “Y”. While the cabin was being built last year and I was visiting the site, I noted which birds were passing through on the Spring migration. I watched for them this year. I was pleased with the arrival of four male Ruby-crowned Kinglets, which took up residence and sang lustily day and night, marking their territories and doing their best to attract females. The Swainson’s Thrush arrived soon after, and five males established territories in the forest around the cabin. They sang far into the night from perches atop the tallest spruce. For me, the songs of those two species really underscore that summer has begun.
The cabin is within a mile of the East side of Big Montana Lake, and I was pleased to hear calls of the Common Loon pair when they returned to the lake. Since I often stay up late during the summer, I would go out at two or three in the morning to listen to the calls drifting through the forest. Sometimes one or more Swainson’s Thrush would be singing as well, and often one or two Ruby-crowned Kinglets would join in. As I stood in the semi-dusk, the deep blue of the trees all around me, I listened, enraptured, to the summer night symphony.
The Flying Squirrels came to their peanut butter suet on the porch later and later. They are nocturnal animals, so they ended up arriving at three-thirty or four am. I would stay up sometimes just to see them, for during the rest of the year they arrive under the cover of darkness. They are quite skittish, and will not tolerate me going out with a flashlight and camera to photograph them. But during the summer there was just enough light around the Solstice to get a few photos one night without the aid of lights. The Flying Squirrel family I came to know during my years living at Birch Creek Ranch were quite tolerant of me, even staying on the porch beams eating peanuts while I was on a ladder a couple of feet away photographing them. They tolerated flashlights, porch lights, and the flash from the camera. Not so, the Squirrels here. If they even spot me watching them through the window, they quickly grab a piece of suet and run up the porch post, leaping out and gliding to the spruce nearest the porch, then racing up that trunk and jumping out and gliding across the clearing to the next spruce. I think it’s because they live within a subdivision, and there’s just so much human activity that they are naturally skittish. That they come here for my food handouts at all is a small miracle, and I feel honored.
The pair of Ermines I observed over the winter quickly cleared all the voles out of the area, so I was surprised to see a vole darting around the den site one summer morning. The voles had an extensive den area at the edge of the clearing just south of the cabin, with numerous holes at the base of the spruce trees, amongst the roots. Over the summer I was pleased to watch the comings and goings of two adult and one juvenile Red-backed Voles. I wasn’t sure the voles would return to this area again, after the predation by the Ermines, but the presence of this family spoke of the resilience of prey species. Probably there are several vole families throughout this forest. They are delightful to watch, as they go about their busy lives.
Six Snowshoe Hares had come to eat the sunflower seeds scattered under the bird feeders throughout the winter. I kept two small feeders up through the summer, plus one suet cage, hoping to attract birds so I could observe summer species. Hares kept arriving to eat seeds under the feeders, and nibble on grass and other summer greens. I was hoping to see leverets; Hare offspring. For awhile there were a few adults, then, in late June I saw my first leveret. It was a chocolate-brown youngster, with large brown eyes and shorter, rounder ears than the adults. Its tail was snow-white. Over the rest of summer I observed four more leverets, all were varying shades of brown and blonde, and all had white tails. I wondered if their tails were a way for adult Hares to keep track of their young. Unlike rabbits, which are born in a den and are hairless, blind and deaf and dependent on their mother for several weeks, Hares are born in a little scrape on the ground, fully furred, eyes and ears open. They stay with their mother for a brief four or five weeks, and by then are weaned and eating greens. They leave their mother and siblings and go off on their own, though staying in the general territory, mother keeping an eye on them and warning them of predators. The leverets I observed were quite curious, exploring all around-and even under the cabin. Sometimes one would hop close by me when I was standing quietly in the clearing, photographing it.
Several of the adults I had observed over the winter did not make it into the summer. I had heard Great Horned Owls in the forest, and had watched Red Foxes in the area. But now there were five leverets to carry on the lineage. By end of August they all had white feet, legs, and bellies. By mid September a few of them were sporting white ears, in varying degrees. The last week in September I saw a light brown Hare with white patches on its head, white ears, legs, feet, tail, belly, and white streaks along its sides. It also had blonde eyebrows, which made its brown eyes look even larger. It was the most strikingly beautiful Hare I’d seen.
Interestingly, there was a dynamic relationship between some of the Hares and the Squirrels. Most of them got along alright, but the light brown Hare with the white patches seemed to get picked on by one squirrel in particular. While the Hare was quietly eating seeds, the Squirrel would approach and when it got close enough, it would dart at the Hare, who would bound away, kicking out behind it at the Squirrel, who would dodge the huge feet. When the Hare would return to resume eating, the Squirrel would jump at the Hare again. This would be repeated two or three times until the Hare gave up and went bounding off into the forest. Other times I would look out the window and there the Hare would be, eating quietly with a Squirrel next to it, also eating quietly.
As summer progressed, birds appeared around the cabin. Juveniles who had recently fledged arrived with adults. I was kept plenty busy taking photos of the summer visitors. I kept an eye out for one of my favorite species; Wilson’s Warblers. I finally spotted a juvenile one morning flitting amongst the trees West of the cabin. I grabbed my camera and went out. I only got one good shot before the bird headed farther into the forest. Being insectivores, these small birds are ever busy, moving constantly from branch to branch searching for insects amongst the leaves. They are very challenging to photograph. Just after I lost track of the bird and was standing next to a spruce listening for its high-pitched call, I heard another similar call from nearby. I recognized the clear notes of a Brown Tree Creeper. I looked around and spotted the small bird on a birch to my right. I barely got the camera focused when it flew and landed on the trunk of a spruce next to me. This species lands low on a tree trunk and starts working its way up the tree in a somewhat spiral pattern, searching the bark for insects. They move rapidly and their plumage from the back is marked amazingly like the bark of a spruce or an older birch-so much so that they can seem to vanish before your eyes, blending in so well. This little bird seemed particularly curious about me, and I surmised that it was a juvenile. Young birds have an innate curiosity about their environment and they will come close to check out people, giving a photographer like me a brief opportunity to get some photos before their curiosity is satisfied and they fly away. This Creeper eyed me from just above my head, giving me a side view. It was pure white on its underside from chin to tail. When it moved around the trunk, and I viewed it from the back, its camouflage was perfect and it blended in so well that I was hard-pressed to find it in my photos.
I was treated to an array of birds visiting the forest around the cabin. Ruby-crowned Kinglets brought their fledglings. I discovered a beautiful male Golden-crowned Kinglet hunting insects in the trees around the cabin. It visited for several days before moving on. Juncos, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black-polled Warblers, and Nuthatches were here in large numbers. Often there were several birds on the porch, searching the beams for insects and even perching on the TV antenna. An Alder Flycatcher and a Northern Water Thrush each came by for a visit over a couple of days. Robins, Woodpeckers, Redpolls, Black capped and Boreal Chickadees, Grey Jays, and even Spruce and a Ruffed Grouse family came by the cabin. To my surprise, I discovered that a juvenile Junco was roosting in a wicker basket of faux flowers I had hanging on the West wall of the outhouse. Just why it chose to roost there, I don’t know, but when the other juvenile Juncos migrated, it went with them.
Eventually, all the summer species migrated. I was finally able to score a photo of a magnificent male Wilson’s Warbler during the two days it graced the forest. Last of the songbirds to go were a pair of adult Juncos. I still heard the Loons calling for a short while, after the Juncos left, and then even their calls stopped and I knew they had left. It was bitter-sweet for me, watching the birds leave, birds I had observed and appreciated for many weeks. I would miss them very much, but I also had the winter flock to keep me company during the months ahead. The Chickadees and Nuthatches are coming to my feeders daily, caching sunflower seeds as they get ready for winter. Magpies are beginning to return, and the Ravens and Grey Jays are here daily as well. Woodpeckers and Grouse are also around, and I still occasionally hear the clear, high notes of the Brown Tree Creeper. Sometimes this species will over-winter, and I’ll be watching to see if this bird chooses to do so.
Mushroom and berry season went by quickly. The seemingly endless rain hastened their ripening. I found that the Grouse and other birds and creatures beat me to the blueberries and lingonberries in the forest around the cabin. This had happened last year, as well. They just know where the berries are and when they are ripe. They have the advantage of roaming the forest from daybreak to sunset, eating every berry they find. I still have to search for the berry bushes and guess when they are reaching their peak. Mushrooms grew rapidly in the rain, but also went past their peak and declined rapidly, as well. At least I logged some good fungus photos.
On the rare sunny days I went for drives and searched for Trumpeter Swans. I managed to find a pair of adults on Little Montana lake one clear day, the sun putting sparkles on the water all around the great white birds. They fed on aquatic plants and far out on the lake a single Common Loon dove for food.
On another sunny, perfect Fall day, I discovered a pair of Trumpeter Swans with a single cygnet on Twister Creek. They swam and fed in water golden with the reflection of Autumn birch trees. Nearby a small gathering of Sockeye Salmon moved restlessly in the current where it drained into a culvert. While they had white patches on their red skin, denoting their decline, they were still strong and viable. I deeply admire all the Salmon who succeed in making it to their spawning grounds. They have so many obstacles- natural and man-made- to overcome on their journey, that it seems miraculous that they make it all the way. As I watched the Swans and Salmon, an adult Bald Eagle flew over, landing in a spruce across the pond. It was a perfect Alaskan moment.
And so another summer and autumn comes to a close and now we await the first snowfall. I’m grateful for all the photos I took over the seasons. I can look at them now and enjoy the memories they inspire. The Flying Squirrels are arriving at nine-thirty now, happy to have their nighttime back. I appreciate seeing the stars and moon again, and look forward to seeing the Aurora dancing in the winter sky. Each season in Alaska has its own special gifts. It’s up to each of us to open our hearts and appreciate them.
Su Writer’s Voice, KTNA
Reflecting on Summer