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Warm Alaska spring delivers an array of migrant birds earlier than usual

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published April 26, 2016

DONNELLY FLATS — The birds are back. For many of us, two things stand out when we consider spring: green leaves and birds' arrival. When I was a kid, it was spring as soon as I spotted the first robin. Summer began when the tree swallows arrived. Alaskans tend to be more in tune with the outdoors and hence, with birds. I had some people from San Francisco visiting for a tour a few days ago, and they did not know what a swan was.

Most of us fall into three categories when it comes to recognizing birds. Experts can identify most songbirds by their voices. To them, the difference between a lesser scaup and a greater scaup is child's play. Many, usually urban residents, might be unable to point out a scaup. Most of us fall into a much-broader category with some knowledge. I am in that group along with most outdoorsmen and women.

We know many of our waterfowl and most of common songbirds: robins, white-crowned sparrows and ruby-crowned kinglets and a few other distinctive singers easily identified by their song. Those with bird feeders get to know certain species quite well. Backyard feeders can teach subtle differences in various types of birds, such as when the young fledge and what food each species prefers.

Some contend feeders should be taken down in summer when natural feed is plentiful. Summer birds depend mostly on insects and spiders, and some believe that continuing a seed-based diet might be tough on young birds' digestion.

The Cornell (University) Lab of Ornithology doesn't think so. It's biologists contend that after a long migration, birds may be somewhat stressed — so easy food encourages a quick recovery. Feeding a nest full of hungry mouths is also stressful, and brood success depends on an abundant source of food.

Hungry bears, kestrels

There are a few drawbacks to a summer backyard feeder. If you live where bears might visit, a bird feeder on the porch may not be a very good idea. Bears habituated to a feeder will continue to look for food around houses and yards, causing trouble. And in those instances, the bears always lose.

An active bird feeder might also attract sparrow hawks, merlins and kestrels, a member of the falcon family that often feeds on small mammals, large insects and other prey. Twenty years ago, I built a shop at our place on Paxson Lake. I was able to stop an entire flock of cliff swallows and convince them to nest under the eaves of the new shop. At the time, it seemed like a great idea; the swallows would eat the mosquitoes around the yard. However, just up the driveway was an old hollow tree that supported a kestrel family.

The kestrels hammered the swallows. By the time migration rolled around in late July, only two cliff swallows remained, but the three young kestrels were really fat. The swallows never returned, though the kestrels still claim their tree house.

All the birds are early this spring. Waterfowl have arrived. Harlequin ducks that use Tangle River as a nesting site are a couple weeks ahead of normal. Sandhill cranes are passing though Delta Junction in large numbers. White-crowned sparrows, robins, ruby-crowned kinglets are singing in the Paxson area. Myrtle warblers have arrived, though the tiny yellow warblers have yet to show.

Say's phoebes, a type of flycatcher, usually don't show up until the third week in May, but they're already picking flies from the windows on our Denali Highway cabins. Tree swallows, commonly in the cities by early May, have been passing through Delta Junction for a week.

Two broods?

The early arrival of migrants means there may be two broods for robins and some sparrows. And the young should be larger and stronger at the beginning of their migrations.

These are good things if you are a bird. It's good for others too — more food for predators, of course.

But for me and other recreational birders, it means more juncos are flickering from underfoot and more yellow-shafted flickers drumming in the forest. The birds are there. Be sure you hear them singing.

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 International Sled Dog Race.

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