Spring is not far off in Alaska. Colder temperatures seem to be hanging on, but a look at yearly averages seem to indicate we were spoiled by the mild winter and thus are expecting the spring to be warm also.
Despite the somewhat frigid temperatures, the spring bird migration is not far away. The first of the passerines (songbirds) have already arrived in Southcentral and are making their way into the Interior.
Male snow buntings show along the roadsides in the Copper River Basin in mid-March. To pick a day: March 18. And, right on schedule, these little guys are in the ditches near Hogan’s Hill on the Richardson Highway north of Glennallen.
Snow buntings are the earliest migrants to arrive in Alaska, with the males continuing on to their nesting areas on the North Slope by early April. Males grab the nesting sites and the females will wander in four to six weeks later. Snow buntings migrate nocturnally in small flocks, using the earth’s magnetic fields for navigation.
Trumpeter swans will be the next to show. The Copper River Basin, one of the main Alaska breeding locations for these big birds, will see the first trumpeters in the beginning of April. The Paxson area will have birds at open water lake inlets and outlets by April 5th or 6th.
Lakes at higher elevations may have nesting pairs waiting patiently for the snow to melt on frozen lakes. Several times, while bear hunting, I have seen birds on lakes above the 3,500 foot level during the first couple weeks in April — sitting on the ice in a snow storm. Migration has to be tough on many bird species.
The majority of Alaska’s 300 bird species go through some type of migration. Some, like the Arctic tern, may travel 22,000 miles one-way, all the way from Antarctica. They follow a zigzag route to take advantage of food sources on the way.
Since a tern can live up to 30 years, it is conceivable that some may travel a million and a half miles during their lifetime — roughly equal to three trips to the moon and back.
Most birds don’t travel quite that far. Golden plovers make an astounding 3,000-mile non-stop migration, often covering the distance in three days. They get up high, in the wind, and can hit speeds of 180 mph.
Birds combine several types of senses and sources when they navigate. They get compass information from the sun, stars and the earth’s magnetic fields. The position of the setting sun and previously seen landmarks are also contributors. Homing pigeons may get some of their information from their sense of smell.
However birds find their way to and from their seasonal haunts, one wonders if all of the hazards are worth the trip.
Storms and food shortages en route are the most common dangers. Man-made obstructions are playing an increasing role in migration problems. High tension power lines, radiation from cell towers, light concentrations from tall buildings and the recent influx of wind turbines kill millions of songbirds every year.
Despite the hazards, most birds are doing OK. There are several songbird species that are diminishing somewhat alarmingly in abundance, though the reasons are not totally understood. More research is needed before determining if migration issues in some species are man-made — and if they are, can they be corrected?
Birds are obviously a critical part of our ecosystem. In addition to the prodigious amount of insects they consume, they scatter seeds from berries and grains across their ranges. Many birds eat rodents. Birds also are an important food source for Indigenous peoples, and the rest of us.
And — more than just maybe — the song of a spring robin lightens our hearts as it heralds the arrival of the new season.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.