Schandelmeier: Watching for the birds of spring

John Schandelmeier
A male Lapland Longspur which is molting into breeding plumage feeds near a small pond at Point Woronzof. Longspurs are a common breeder in western and northern Alaska and a common migrant in Anchorage area in spring.
Bob Hallinen
A snow bunting on the Unalakleet slough.
Bob Hallinen

The first official day of spring has come and gone. Alaska spring where I am is often minus 20 in the early morning hours. This year it hasn't seemed quite so cold. I've been rising to near- zero temperatures and enjoying afternoons of bright sunshine in a light jacket. In the mountains south of Delta Junction the sun has driven the snow from the windblown southern slopes and the birds are beginning to arrive from the south.

Snow buntings are among the first birds to arrive. If I had to pick a day for their arrival, it would be March 16. These are small white birds with a touch of black on their wings, which frequent the thawed shoulders of our Southcentral highways searching for grass seeds. Often they land in our dog yard to pick seeds from bits of scattered straw kicked from the dog houses.

Several years ago, I was in Unalakleet in early February attending a dog race. I was surprised to see snow buntings scratching for seeds in the grass along the windblown beachfront. A little research found that these birds were not the same bunting that feed along our roadsides. The western coast birds are McKay's buntings. They look similar, but breed in Siberia and on Bering Sea islands. Their winters are spent in the north, working grass beaches along the western Alaska coast.

The other highly visible early spring arrival is the Lapland longspur. Longspurs are small brown birds about the size of sparrows. They arrive in small flocks and, much like buntings, work the roadsides for exposed grass seeds. Longspurs are easily distinguished from sparrows because they run along the ground rather than hop. Neither longspurs nor buntings come well to bird feeders, though I have had buntings on the feeder when late spring snows cover their other food sources.

Slate juncos, white-crowned sparrows and tree sparrows all follow close behind the early-arriving snow buntings and longspurs. The juncos are usually the first among this group. I have seen several in the Delta area over the past couple days. They tend to stay in fairly heavy cover, eating last season's berries that are exposed under spruce canopies. They know to keep close to cover; the small hawks are not far behind them.

Northern Harriers, commonly called marsh hawks, should also be here within the next few days. These medium- sized hawks follow closely behind their prey species and also work open meadows in search of mice. Harriers fly close to the ground with a gliding wing stroke. The males are gray. Females are dark brown and slightly larger. Marsh hawks are the most visible early-spring hawk found along the road system.

One of our most familiar and abundant migrants has yet to arrive. I haven't seen my first robin of the season, though it could happen any day. Robins usually show up in Paxson by April first. Like the juncos and sparrows, they feed mostly on last years' berries. There is nothing quite like the melodious voice of an American Robin on a crisp spring morning.

For me, the true harbingers of spring are trumpeter swans. We will still be racing sled dogs on good snow when they touchdown in the open water at the outlet of Paxson Lake on the sixth of April. One can set the calendar by their arrival. First, there will be just a pair or two, then small groups join until there are a hundred or more gathered by the end of the week. Gradually, the big birds disperse to other areas of open water nearer to their nesting sites. Occasionally they can be seen sitting on the ice near the outlet of a lake waiting for the thaw. Patience.

It is easy to have patience in late March. Every day brings changes to the world outside. It's comfortable to be outdoors; even the negative temperatures at night don't last long. Warm afternoons and abundant daylight lend credence to the coming of summer. Even as we mourn the loss of snow for the running of our sled dogs, we look forward to the arrival of the winged migrants and the endless daylight of spring.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.


John Schandelmeier