Fear not, our feathered friends: Spring is on the horizon

It isn’t exactly spring yet, but with the return of daylight there is beginning to be hope. It is always surprising when the snow melts. We were just getting used to it. The birds are definitely getting happier. Great horned owls are booming their mating calls. Camp robbers, aka gray jays, are livelier; they realize warmer days are coming. There is no need to rush around as in the short days, caching food.

March 17, set your clock on it — the first of the snow buntings will arrive on the Richardson Highway in the Sourdough area, north of Glennallen. I have already spotted a single bald eagle working on a road-killed moose in the Donnelly Flats area, 20 miles south of Delta Junction.

Bald eagles are not migrants, but most of them move to the coastal areas during the coldest part of the winter. Tangle Lakes usually has one or two eagles in residence all winter.

The Tangles have open water all months of the year — complete with enough whitefish to support an eagle or two. There are also several decent flocks of mallards that stay around Tangle Lakes, Dickey Lake and the outlet of Paxson Lake. An aggressive eagle can pick off one of those ducks on occasion.

Speaking of eagles, the Steller’s sea eagle that appeared in the Maclaren River area in the fall of 2020 evidently continued his long distance traveling. He was identified by his feather pattern — on the East Coast, earlier this winter. There is no figuring that particular bird. But he is certainly giving birders a thrill wherever he lands.

My winter bird thrill was a northern shrike landing in a treetop just outside our back door. He didn’t stick around long, but it was my first winter sighting of a shrike. I know they stay around sometimes, but always somewhere I’m not.

There are two species of birds I can’t figure. Pigeons and ravens. They amaze me. Where do they find enough food in the winter months? The pigeons that fly around Fairbanks and Anchorage seem to do well. They poke around parking lots at various stores — picking at something. We keep pigeons — penned — and they need a fair amount of feed. Water is also nice.

Water and food are in limited supply during the short Fairbanks days. How pigeons get enough calories to stay alive and healthy until spring is beyond my ken. Pigeons are reasonably smart birds — research has shown they can count, at least to 10 — but where do they find enough food consistently to survive?

Ravens are the smartest birds going. They can use a wire or stick to poke food out of tube. They are intelligent enough to pull food hanging on a string through a hole — hold onto the string with their foot and get another grip with their beak. I hate to admit it, but they are definitely a few critters up the list on a German shepherd. It is fascinating to watch them work the dog yard in pairs. One raven will harass a dog that is trying to eat until the dog finally attempts to catch the bird. The second raven will pull the food dish out of the dog’s reach while the poor sled dog is preoccupied.

Still, as innovative as ravens are, there are a limited amount of groceries they can thieve from the back of pickup trucks. There are not many road-killed hares and squirrels. The true rural birds go high on the mountainsides and pick berries exposed by the wind. Winter kill on both ravens and pigeons must be substantial.

The December ice storm likely made life tougher for many of our over-wintering birds. Owls that depend on voles had to move elsewhere. A normal winter will find many voles on top of the snow pack. Not this winter. The voles can’t get through the ice crust. An unknown number of spruce grouse and ruffed grouse undoubtedly were imprisoned under the ice — grouse sleep under the snow at night — and didn’t get out.

Sharptail grouse appear to be OK. A flock has been feeding around our yard most of the winter. The number of birds in the flock has stayed steady. The sharptails in our area spend their nights under spruce trees instead of in the snow, so thus were unaffected by the freezing rain.

There is still plenty of snow in the yard. Melting rarely happens in February. However, think about it: in five weeks time there will be trumpeter swans.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist 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.