The snow buntings have arrived in the Interior right on schedule. Four of the little white birds were in the road at Mile 240 on the Richardson Highway on Thursday. These first birds are all males. They are in a great hurry to get farther up north and select the very best nesting sites for the females that will follow in a month or so. Normally these bright harbingers of spring feed on exposed grass seeds along the edges of the highway. This year, with the huge snow berms that have yet to show melt, there will be little to feed on.
Before there were highways and farmers with hay barns, we can guess that snow buntings fed on grass seeds that were exposed on windblown river bars. The Delta River has plenty of windswept areas this spring in spite of heavy snows. The birds should be fine.
A couple weeks ago, the first of the McKay’s buntings, which look very similar to our Interior buntings, began to be visible on the mainland near Unalakleet and Shaktoolik. These birds winter along the western Alaskan coast and on Bering Sea islands. They are hard to spot most times, but are always there to poke around in the straw when the Iditarod mushers pass through Unalakleet.
Trumpeter swans will be the next to arrive. Paxson will have swans by April 6 or sooner. The Clearwater River in Delta Junction will be the next location where they can be easily seen. These early arrivals have little to feed on, but, like all of us, they get fidgety when spring is in the air.
Fairbanks has a contest to predict the first goose arrival at Creamer’s Field. The person with the closest guess, without going over, wins the big bucks. Mark your calendar; it will be sometime on the eighth day of April this year. Snow buntings, geese and swans are not the only spring arrivals to Alaska.
Another sure sign of spring, in recent years, is the mass arrival of Chinese tourists. Discounting the COVID years, Chinese college students show up en masse to the Interior on their spring break. The Castner Ice Cave is being overrun this spring with a 100 or more students making a daily trek to the once-deserted cave. Most of these tourists will fly back south in the next week or so — unlike the birds which will stay all summer.
April will also see hundreds of snowmachines headed to the Summit Lake area just north of Paxson. The spring snow in the high country makes for incredible snowmobiling. The Arctic Man event, which used to bring thousands of machines to Summit has been discontinued. The great snowmachining has not. The first couple weeks of April are the snowmachiners’ last hurrah of 2022. Other than a few weekend high-markers, occasional groups of ice fishermen and the odd bear hunter, most snowmobiles head for the garage by mid-April.
My family loves winter and the accompanying snow and brisk, cold weather. Still — there is a lot to be said for spring. April is the nicest month of the year in Alaska. Long clear days, with crisp nights and warming daytime temperatures are ideal for avid outdoorsmen and those who are not such hardcore winter enthusiasts.
More caution than usual is in order this spring season when getting out in the snow. Deep snow on area lakes will camouflage open springs that open up along the shorelines. These are the perfect trap for the unwary. Avalanche danger in the mountains will be extreme because of the heavy snowpack. One will need to be careful.
Careful does not mean don’t go. It means steer clear of the shorelines when on unknown lakes. Avoid creeks and rivers. Stay out of avalanche zones. If you are not sure about an area, or are uneasy because of inexperience, don’t go there. Stay on well-used trails. Or, jump in the car for a long drive to see the birds.
The buntings will be on the roadside for the next several weeks, northern harriers — marsh hawks — will be working the fields in the Valley. Anytime after the first part of April you could be surprised to hear a telephone ring far back in the woods. The telephone bird is actually a slate junco attempting to give his mate-to-be a ring. By mid-summer birds are just background to most people, but in late March and early April, they are a sure sign of new life to come.