I didn’t expect to find myself in the middle of spring bird migration in Anchorage in late April. But that is exactly what happened. I guess when summer only lasts three months before the snow flies again, you’d better be here when it starts.
I arrived on April 19th for a two-week stay to piles of gray snow on the roadsides and the last of winter dripping off rooftops. It’s a late melt, but the birds don’t wait. The last week of April and the first weeks of May hold the most promise for varieties of songbirds and waterfowl coming home to summer in Anchorage or passing through to their arctic breeding grounds.
In my quest to find moose, I visited many rivers, ponds, lagoons, and wetlands. I saw bird species I’d never seen before and witnessed elaborate courtship rituals. Birds take the prize when it comes to wooing techniques. First, their brilliantly colored, bedazzled breeding plumage lies in stark contrast to their drab, camouflaged winter look. Who else but humans adorn themselves so elaborately for a potential partner? Then there are the displays. The dances, preening, showboating, puffed out chests, and waving tail feathers. Ungulates roll in stink and spar with other suitors. Canids and bruins fight other males for the privilege of begging a female to accept them. Birds have a dance contest and then build a home singularly to please their mate.
These five male goldeneyes wooed and courted this hen almost the whole time I was at Westchester Lagoon. She did her best to play it cool.
Just before I left, the chosen one chased off one last interloper, and the new couple swam off into the sunset together. They look quite proud.
Grebes rear up out of the water, paddling upright in a choreographed duet. These red-necked grebes were no exception. Their dance was short-lived. One of them abruptly flew off. There’s must’ve been an unseen faux pas.
Lesser Canada geese congregate at the pond’s edge, looking for handouts. They aren’t “lesser” than our well-known Canada geese, just smaller. Noticeably so – a petite version of our ubiquitous honkers.
A couple of ring-necks quietly paired off.
A lone bufflehead takes a break from the social scene for a bite to eat.
Songbirds are here, too. Magpies are nest-building in every park – and in every parking lot where pine trees grow. This colorful corvid, related to ravens and crows, is highly intelligent and a delight to watch. Although living among us, they can often be too smart for their own good.
Warblers flit quickly through the treetops chasing insects and each other. Their manic movements through the branches and leaves make them tough to photograph (especially if you’re distracted by rusting dilapidated old cars).
Arctic terns, at the southern edge of their circumpolar summer range, shoot past where I stand at the edge of Potter’s Marsh. They successfully scoop tiny fish from the water’s surface without a hitch in their flight. They dip their lower bill into the water so subtly that I had been watching them for a bit before I realized they were snagging fish at almost every pass. Arctic terns have the distinction of having the longest migration of any animal on earth. Every year they fly from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle—a round-trip journey of about 30,000 kilometers (18,641 miles). I’ve never seen one before. I feel in the presence of greatness.
Along the Palmer-Moose creek trail chickadees are excavating nesting cavities just feet off this heavily trafficked path. They aren’t disturbed by me, cyclists, joggers, or dogs. They have work to do. Popping out and flying off with a beak full of shavings to drop away from the nest and then back for another go. The pairs take turns, each sharing in the work.
There’s always something new to be found in an adventure into the wilderness. Even when that wilderness is within the Anchorage city limits. Nature provides endless fascination. Don’t forget to stop and look.
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