bird fun in a sunny spell

As June progressed, there was an assortment of interesting observations in my yard. Chickadees and red-breasted nuthatch juveniles, fully volant, pursued their parents energetically. The number of hummingbirds at my feeder increased dramatically, as the juveniles from (probably) two nests figured out there were goodies there. As they became more numerous, so did the conflicts among them; a male appeared more often than before, adding to the fuss. One brood of juncos had big, streak-breasted juveniles, while another one had fluffy new fledglings that didn’t yet have their juvenile stripes.

One brood of just two mallard ducklings had passed through my pond, never to be seen again. There were lots of empty days with no ducklings, and then a surprise! Just after Solstice, a late brood of eight small ducklings came by. But they, too, disappeared. In many other years, there have been several broods that spend lots of time on my pond, but this year is different.

Mallard brood. Photo by Helen Unruh

Hummingbird feeders sometimes attract opportunist foragers in addition to their intended guests. A feeder in Wisconsin occasionally draws orioles and house finches. Here, yellow warblers and orange-crowned warblers come occasionally, and one local observer even recorded a downy woodpecker that regularly hung on a feeder while sipping sugar water.

At Kingfisher Pond, the red-winged blackbirds had fledglings of different ages, from different nests. And, to my surprise, I found a male yellowthroat singing and foraging in the brush and sedges on the edge of the pond. This warbler is not common here: very few spring sightings are noted on e-bird for Juneau. I think I recall that my field crew and I found one nesting in a Valley meadow, many years ago.

Red-winged blackbird fledgling. Photo by Helen Unruh

Common yellowthroats breed all across much of North American, wintering in southern U.S. and Central America. They often nest in wetlands, but sometimes also use various other habitats offering thick vegetation near the ground, such as burned-over oak forest and shrub thickets in pine forest. Male yellowthroats are territorial. Social monogamy is the rule, but both sexes frequently look for extra-pair matings (as is common among songbirds). The female builds the nest and incubates a clutch of about four eggs; the male may bring her occasional snacks. Both parents feed the chicks, which can leave the nest when about eight days old, reaching complete independence in four or five weeks. They typically mature at when they are a year old.

Common yellowthroat. Photo by Helen Unruh

Yellowthroats here seem to be at the very fringe of their geographic range. So I hope the fellow at Kingfisher Pond found a mate and raises some chicks. 

Along the trails, chunky young varied thrushes, startled by our passing by, thrashed their way up from the bushes into the trees; they already looked a lot like adults but for the short tail. Two fledgling Pacific wrens, more curious than frightened, peered out of the bushes, ignoring the warning chip-notes of a nearby parent. The pair of greater yellowlegs in the lower Spaulding meadows vigorously and unrelentingly protested our presence, so it was clear that they still had chicks running around somewhere, but this time I didn’t see them. A hermit thrush perched next to the trail while giving an odd whining sort of callfor several minutes, so I suspect it had young ones nearby.

On the Lake Creek trail, a tall snag showed lots of signs of use by woodpeckers—over a dozen holes along its length. One of them was occupied this year, as evidenced by the scuff marks below the hole and shrill calls emanating from within. The chicks were still too small to stick their heads out, so the attentive adults were not met at the door. That would soon change, as the older nestlings begin to anticipate arrivals of the adults. 

Out at Eagle Beach on a sunny day not long after Solstice, a family for four ravens foraged together in a tide pool close to the upper beach. As I settled down on a log to watch them, another bunch of five ravens came out from the forest, making a big racket, and landed on the beach, still yelling. After standing around for a few minutes, one (which turned out to be an adult) ambled down to a patch of low intertidal vegetation to forage, eventually moving back up-beach to pick up and swallow invisibly tiny items from clumps of drying algae. Presently, two of the young, squawking ravens ventured down to a stand of sea milkwort and goose-tongue and desultorily pecked here and there for small things. A third one continued to yell as it followed the adult along the beach; the adult went on, setting a good example for the juvenile. This young one occasionally jabbed its bill at something but was clearly more interested in yelling than in feeding for itself. After a little while, the adult and these three juveniles all took off in a hurry and sailed way down the beach somewhere. That left one juvenile in the original landing spot, where it had hunkered down and apparently gone to sleep. But when the others took off, this one stood up and began to squawk—quite softly. And there it still was, many minutes later, all by itself. I didn’t stay to see if there was a reunion.


Bird song

corvids are songbirds… so why don’t they sing?

One day in early November, after a morning of plonking about on snowshoes for the first time this year, I sat myself on a snowbank and leaned against an old alder tree—time out for a snack. My companion perched at the base of another alder a few feet away. We’d spent the morning looking at animal tracks in a meadow. As soon as we opened our packs to dig out our lunches, we were visited by a raven, who called and attracted another one. But they ignored our (admittedly) small offerings and departed.

Thinking about the raven calls reminded me of some recent reading about the singing behavior of birds and a lingering question. First, some background: ravens, crows, and jays are classified as songbirds on the basis of both morphology and genetics. But their singing behavior differs from that of other songbirds in an interesting way.

Most songbirds sing during the nesting season, sometimes all day long, sometimes mostly in the morning. Males may use one song before dawn and another after sunrise, and there is usually a dawn chorus of many species all vocalizing at once. Morning bird songs are something that lots of folks, not just birders, look forward to in temperate-zone springtime and even sometimes in the tropics.

Bird song has many functions. Males advertise their territory ownership, telling others of that species to stay away. Sometimes, two males face each other aggressively at a territory border and have song duels, each one trying to out-shout the other. Males’ songs also attract females to their territories, the vigor of their songs indicating their state of health and motivation. Female songbirds may sing too—telling other females to stay away from that territory. Or, in some cases, a female might sing to tell her mate to bring her a snack.

The ‘voice box’ of birds is totally different from that of humans, other mammals, and reptiles. We have a cartilaginous larynx at the upper end of the trachea (windpipe). The larynx is thought to have evolved from a valve involved in swallowing (and when we swallow, the larynx moves). We sing or talk by moving air out of the trachea and through the larynx, causing vocal membranes to vibrate; muscles linked to the cartilages control the sound. The closest living relatives of birds are crocodiles and they too use a larynx for vocalization. However, although birds have a larynx, it’s not used for making sounds; they use another structure, called a syrinx. The avian syrinx is located at the lower end of the trachea where it branches into two passage-ways (bronchii) going to the lungs. The syrinx apparently evolved, not from a valve, but from structural supports for the branching airway, and very different muscles are involved in control of its vibrating membranes.

Because the syrinx is in two parts, at the beginnings of the two bronchii, songbirds can sing two distinct notes at the same time, something a larynx cannot do. This is not the same as Mongolian throat singing, in which singers learn to exploit the harmonics (overtones) of the fundamental note. The two distinct notes sung by a songbird are not harmonically related. Air is moved from the lungs into the trachea, as most song is produced by exhaling; but birds can also produce some song when they inhale. Loudness and pitch are changed by altering air pressure and by changing the tension of the muscles that control the elastic, vibrating membranes of the syrinx.

Jays, crows, and ravens have the avian syrinx, but they don’t use it in the same way as other songbirds. They can make a huge variety of sounds; the loud, raucous ones are most familiar to us. But they are perfectly capable of making musical sounds and do so, quietly, upon occasion. If you listen carefully, you might hear them! But these songbirds have no dawn choruses, no song-battles for territory, no lovely singing to attract mates. That begs the question: Why not?


birds sing for many reasons!

A mid-August walk finds the woods almost silent. A raven talks, a jay complains, an eagle titters, a squirrel chatters. If you are lucky, a little group of chickadees will come by and visit. But bird song is over for the year. Warblers are on the move, singly and in small groups, ready to spend the winter down south.

Why should the absence of bird-song make me think about singing? Maybe when the spring chorus is in full swing, I’m too busy listening, but now I have time to notice the emptiness.

It has long been known that male birds sing to attract mates and advertise their nesting territories. Songbirds commonly learn at least part of their breeding season songs by listening to their fathers’ songs and perhaps also those of their neighbors. In some cases, localized dialects develop, in which all the males sing very similar songs and females tend to prefer males that sing the local version. This is apparently more likely in birds that are year-round residents; examples are heard in the songs of white-crowned sparrows along the west coast. Sometimes song learning in migrants also occurs on the wintering grounds where populations can mix and hear each others’ songs as they warm up for the spring season. And some birds, such as mockingbirds and starlings, readily mimic the songs of other species.

Something different has happened with the white-throated sparrow, which nests all across northern North America. Its characteristic song consists of two notes followed by three triplets, rendered in English in the U. S. as “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody. Over a decade ago, however, a change was noted in the song of males in western Canada (where the song is said to say “O sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”). But those western males weren’t singing the triplets anymore; they were now singing duplets instead. And, strangely, this new version of the song spread gradually eastward, to Quebec (as of 2020). No one really knows why the new song is taking over; one suggestion is just that the females like the novelty of it, which raises the question of what the next novelty might be!

In other cases, changing conditions may cause birds to change their songs so as to be heard more clearly by each other. Several studies have shown than birds in cities sing at a higher pitch than their country relatives, perhaps to be heard over the background cacophony of city noises, many of which have low pitches. Social context also matters: birds tend to sing longer and faster songs in areas where their populations are denser and there are more potential territory intruders.

Many studies have shown that singing has huge effects on emotional, mental, and even physical well-being of humans. Those of us who have enjoyed choral singing with local groups know well some of those benefits. More recently, research has found that birds probably get similar benefits. Now it seems that, in addition to attracting mates and advertising territories, they may also sing for the pure pleasure of it, as Darwin once suggested.

Starlings gather in large flocks when the nesting season is over. In those flocks, both males and females sing a lot—not the songs of the breeding season, but more unstructured, less ritualized songs. In studies with captive starlings, researchers had found that, given a choice, the birds preferred to be in aviaries where they had previously participated in group singing—perhaps because it was pleasurable. Then the researchers experimentally manipulated the levels of the birds’ natural opioids; opioids are the chemicals that induce feelings of well-being and pleasure and they also reduce pain. Their production can be stimulated by certain conditions, such as being in a safe place with friends, and activities, such as eating and singing. So we—and birds too, perhaps–feel good when those things happen. And feeling good may, in turn, favor more associations with safe places and more eating and singing.

The researchers demonstrated that, using drugs, they could stimulate the production of natural opioids by the body and trigger lots of group singing, simultaneously reducing stress-related behaviors. Conversely, when the production of natural opioids was experimentally reduced, group singing was also reduced…and the birds no longer preferred to be where they had experienced group singing before. There may be more to the emotional life of birds than we give them credit for!

Signs of spring

…in the air, on the trees, in the water…

The days get longer and longer, and folks in Juneau begin to wish that spring would hurry up and get here. The spring equinox occurred this week, so now Spring is officially here.

The real world was ever-so-slightly ahead of officialdom. In the days of March before the equinox, there were clear signs that spring might really happen, even though snow still covered the ground and hung in clumps on tree branches, and creeks were mostly ice-covered. Redpolls still thronged to our seed feeders, and the magpies were still in town too, not yet ready to head over the mountains to their nesting places.

But the plants knew that the times were changing. Cottonwood buds swelled with the developing leaves inside them. The catkins of feltleaf willow, always the earliest willow to flower, began to emerge from their bud covers but were not yet sexually mature. The still-immature male catkins of red alders along the roads began to blush with a rusty-red hue. Blueberry twigs took on a brighter red and their buds began to peep open. Young willow shoots shone with a yellow hue.

Near several streams, adult stoneflies began to emerge from the creeks, crawling over the snow. Some observers have suggested that female stoneflies stay closer to the streams than males do, because they lay their eggs in the water, where the larvae develop. That leads me to wonder why the males don’t hang out where the girls are, since their main goal is to find mates.

The early birds were singing: Juncos trilled from the tops of trees and shrubs. I heard a few song sparrows and had reports of varied thrushes and a wren in song—still rather sporadically. A few robins foraged for skimpy foods. At least some sapsuckers are back, drumming their rhythms on metal roofs and drainpipes. There is a report of black oystercatchers, early returnees to our rocky shores from points south. Groups of gulls were checking out their nesting areas near Mendenhall Lake one day, but apparently they decided that the visit was premature and it would be better to wait a while. Then, just before the equinox, they tried again; I heard their calls as they flew up the valley and over the lake toward the glacier.

Pairs of ravens canoodled on lamp posts, and a raven on Sandy Beach was diligently filling its bill with clumps of dog fur, a sign that a nest was being lined with those cozy materials. At least some of the Canada geese near the Boy Scout camp were consorting in pairs. A few days later, in the same broad meadow, hundreds of Canadas grazed, joined by a lone snow goose. Steller’s jays expanded their vocabulary: their spring repertoire includes a variety of more musical sounds than the familiar year-round squawk.

Photo by Jos Bakker

One of the beaches on Douglas Island is a place I like to check, about this time of year, because I often find ‘mermaids’ purses’ washed up at the high tide line. These are the egg cases of long-nose skates (relatives of rays and, more distantly, sharks). There is one egg, and thus one embryo, in each egg case of this species. Eggs are fertilized inside the female skates and the cases of protein fibers are constructed around the eggs. The cases are yellowish-brown before they dry out and turn black on the shore. Most of those that I found had been hacked open, perhaps by a raven or gull, but some appeared to be intact. Maybe the embryo had already emerged through the seam in the side of the case, ready to go as a fully formed young skate. Or maybe a predatory snail had drilled a very small hole (less than five millimeters or so) in the case and slurped up the young embryo. Or there is also a possibility that no embryo had been there—that the case was produced with no egg.

When someone says ‘spring is in the air’, it really is! As Parks and Rec hikers waded through flooded meadows to the beach just beyond the Cowee Meadow cabin, little zephyrs brought the welcome smell of spring to our noses. I don’t know what makes that aroma so distinct, but there is nothing quite like it.

On the trails in late May

springtime, from the subalpine to the shore

When I got up that morning and looked out the window, rain was cascading down. This is spring, so I really didn’t want fall weather. But I glumly packed up my gear, somewhat grumpily donned my rain pants, made sure my rain jacket was in the car, and went to pick up some Parks and Rec hiking friends. By the time we reached the Perseverance trailhead, the sky was blue, the sun had climbed over the ridges, and with smiling faces we headed up the trail (after greeting the large, furry, white dog that lives in the Gold Museum and likes to check out folks at the trailhead).

Spring is always quite exciting, because there will be something new to see or hear or smell almost every day. In the past two or three days, leaves had fairly leaped out of their buds, and cottonwood leaves glittered in their new-green hues. Salmonberry canes sported their first pink flowers, and clumps of shooting stars decorated the trailsides. My favorite yellow violet was in good flower, along with the small-flowered lavender one. The air was fresh with the delicate fragrance of cottonwood resin (on the bud covers) and the sweet perfume of skunk cabbage (nothing the least skunky about it!).

Robins carried food to their chicks, and parental varied thrushes clucked warnings to their newly fledged youngsters. Wilson’s warblers chattered on all sides and a few yellow warblers announced their recent arrival. Fox sparrows held shouting matches (in song) in the thickets. Ruby-crowned kinglets gave many variations of their rich, musical song. A few hermit thrushes fussed in the underbrush but did not sing. A pair of harlequin ducks loafed on a midstream rock, presumably with thoughts of eggs to be laid in a nest not far away.

Where Lurvey Creek joins Gold Creek, I gazed upstream for half an hour and was finally rewarded by a small gray bird that darted out of a crevice in the cliff and perched on the deep snowbank that lined one side of the creek. Dippers often nest here, except in years when snows still cover the entire creek. A snow-bridge below the dipper’s nest site collapsed bit by bit and sent snow-bergs downstream, as we enjoyed a leisurely lunch with homemade cookies.

American Dipper. Photo by Arnie Hanger

If we had been there two days later, things would have been really exciting. Big slabs on the flank of the ridge loosed their moorings and slithered down into Gold Creek, just above the junction with Lurvey Creek. A deep mound of dirt and boulders now squats over the creek, which has carved its way through the debris. Gold Creek was turbid for several days, and this is likely to continue for a while, given the size of the dirt pile. The heavy sediment load is probably bad news for the dippers trying to nest downstream, because the water is too opaque for them to find their food.


A warm day or two later, I was on the West Glacier trail, finding the first baneberry flowers, lots of buttercups, more violets, and batteries of white butterflies looking for mates and visiting the violet flowers. On damp, rocky sites we found clumps of a flowering plant that was new to me until very recently. It goes by the utterly silly common name of Sitka mistmaiden (more formally known as Romanzoffia sitchensis), and it looks enough like a saxifrage (which it is not) to fool a botanist. This trip had the ultimate goal of checking for a dipper nest at a stream that plunges off Mt McGinnis into Mendenhall Lake. And indeed, the birds were there, although this year the nest was in a new site across the creek. I think that dippers started nesting by this stream as soon as the glacier left the site open.

The next Parks and Rec excursion was a stroll out to Blue Mussel cabin on the shore of Berners Bay. Overcast skies kept the temperatures relatively cool, and mist lay low over Lynn Canal. We gobbled up a homemade rhubarb dessert (yes, mom, even before ‘cleaning our plates’), as small squads of sea lions foraged enthusiastically and a humpback whale made unexpectedly tight turns in pursuit of the same small fishes.

Although our spring arrived late this year, the meadows were awash in pink-flowered shooting stars. Bright yellow buttercups dotted the fields of pink, yellow marsh marigolds adorned the wet ditches, and the yellow display of skunk cabbages attracted the usual crowds of small, brown, pollinating beetles. Lupine was just beginning to bloom, but these early blooms had already been visited by bumblebees, turning the upper petals from white to magenta.

I heard a snipe performing its great aerial display, but I think I was the only hiker who noticed this. Savannah sparrows sang and flitted low in the herbage, and I heard a distant burbling song of a Lincoln’s sparrow (but I had to think hard for a bit before I could pull that one out of my so-called memory!). And I have not mentioned the mosquitoes…

On the walk between the beach berm and the Blue Mussel cabin, we encountered several signs that the trail is also used by bears. There was a strange, barren patch of forest, in which there was no ground cover and all the smaller trees were quite dead. It looked as if a ground fire had passed through, but there were no signs of charring, leaving the cause an open question.

Considerable work has greatly improved the formerly squishy trail between the Cowee Meadow cabin and the beach berm, where sweetgale was just leafing out. However, parts of the trail through the meadows were ankle-deep in water, nicely contained between the logs that mark the trail edges. A few more loads of gravel between the logs in these sections would surely be appreciated!

Perambulations in June

bird cacophony in Sheep Creek, and a flower show at Cowee Meadows

Sheep Creek valley is a great place to be in June. The dense shrubbery hosts a rich community of nesting songbirds. By June, the late-arriving Swainson’s thrushes are here, sounding off with their distinctive rising notes. Hermit thrushes have been here for a while, but they’re still singing, a high, prolonged note followed by a descending burble or sound. Fox sparrows were in full voice, rich and varied, their dark plumage surprisingly hard to discern in the foliage.

Wilson’s warblers chattered and yellow warblers called sweet-sweet-twitter on both sides of the trail. The feeble trill of the orange-crowned warbler can be hard to hear over the rustle of leaves. Robins were still caroling, although some already had chicks in the nest (and eggshells on the ground). A few varied thrushes and ruby-crowned kinglets could be heard near the conifer stands. There was an occasional Pacific wren (what we used to know as winter wren) and a warbling vireo. There must be some Lincoln’s sparrows somewhere, and birders report at least one MacGillivray’s warbler.

Juncos nest up there too, a bit behind the ones near my house, which in mid-June already have young ones out of the nest and are thinking about a second brood. A dipper flew quickly upstream, perhaps one of the pair nesting in the big log dam.

The cheerful cacophony of bird song goes on all morning. Parks and Rec hikers miss the full-blown dawn chorus, but there was still enough bird music to entertain me. A good portion of my acoustic attention is focused, not on human sounds, but on smaller creatures, so to some extent, I walk in a different world than most of my companions.

A Parks and Rec trip up Perseverance Trail found a CBJ trail crew hard at work, clearing the last boulders and junk left by an avalanche. There was still some snow on the upper parts of the trail, but these patches were easily passable. It was still early spring up there. Willows were just leafing out and only the earliest birds were evident. On the way back to town, I dawdled along, listening to bird song. I caught up with a birder-friend, and she brought me good luck: we checked a couple of dipper territories and found nesting dippers in both places.

Some days later, a small group of hikers went out the Bridget meadows trail and then along Cowee Creek. The planks on the first part of the trail have been replaced by nice gravel turnpike, and the board-walk down to the meadows is in quite good shape. However, the turnpike through the low-lying meadows is still flooded, ankle-deep, and the forested part of the lowland trail is a mess of mud-holes and some treefalls. We can hope there’s a plan to make some more improvements!

“Twas a fine, hot (!!!) day (remember??? There was one!), and lots of folks thought this would be a good place to visit. We avoided the crowds and wandered off toward the creek. As we ambled along, admiring the wild-flower show, we heard a series of branch-snappings in the alder thickets. Hmmm. That’s odd… Then we heard some loud whuff-whuff-whuffs as something large barged through the brush toward us. Ah, OK,–we are not wanted here! So let’s clear out and leave Mr or Mrs Bruin to its lunch (but I’m sure wondering what it was defending). I have, on a solo canoe trip in the past, been literally nose-to-nose with a bear, but this was my first whuffing. We never even saw the whuffer.

As usual, the June flower show in the meadows was spectacular. Shooting stars were about finished, but some stands were still in full, pink bloom. The wild iris was well underway, with lots more to come, showing shades of purple ranging from the intense, deep, royal hue, through one with a rosy tinge, to a pale, almost lavender. The white heads of cow parsnip were set off by fields of yellow buttercups and blue lupine. The lupine had been well-visited by bees; on most of the open flowers the upper (so-called banner) petals had turned from white to purplish-blue.

Nestled down among the taller flowers were yellow silverweed, pink-purple beach pea, white chickweed and starflower, a few pale purple northern geranium, and plenty of brown-flowered riceroot (known here as chocolate lily). On one of the lily flowers, we saw a spectacular moth, which we had seen only once before in our lives: little more than an inch of wingspan, deep black with large white patches. Circling four of the six legs are fluffy, orange bracelets. Known as Langton’s forester moth, the caterpillars feed on fireweed, but the adult feeds on a variety of flowers; in this case it was apparently attracted to the fetid odor of decay that chocolate lily uses to attract its pollinators.

Photo by Jos Bakker

A good day! We listened to Pacific-slope flycatchers on the way down through the woods, and savannah sparrows in the meadows. A blessing as we departed came in the form of two small juvenile toads, telling us that there are still some tadpole ponds in the meadows.

Going to Granite Basin

drab warblers and jousting butterflies

This is one of my favorite Juneau hikes. In mid May, we went from almost full summer (at the head of Perseverance trail) to very early spring in the basin, just in time for lunch. There was still a fair amount of snow in the basin and the bushes were mostly pressed flat. All along the trail the birds were singing—hermit thrushes and varied thrushes and ruby-crowned kinglets in the trees, Wilson’s warblers, fox sparrows, and orange-crowned warblers in the brush. Robins were well along in their nesting cycle but nevertheless we heard them almost everywhere. Up in the basin, I was pleased to hear the plaintive song of golden-crowned sparrows, a bird that graces some of our subalpine areas.

I’m going to give the orange-crowned warbler special mention here, because they are so often overlooked entirely. It’s a drab little ground-nester. Its chief distinguishing feature is that it has no distinguishing features. The orange crown is concealed. The grayish streaks on the breast are hard to discern. Just a yellowish-olive little thing, with an equally undistinguished song that could equally well come from some insect. They love to forage on caterpillars that munch leaves.

Orange-crowned warbler. Photo by Katherine Hocker

A hefty black bear grazed on a slope across Gold Creek. Marmots sounded their warning whistles as we wound our way up toward the basin. High on Juneau ridge, we spotted a group of mountain goats and were quite sure that some of them had new kids. Margined-white butterflies fluttered here and there, vising a few flowers; they certainly like violets. Male butterflies contested vigorously with each other for desirable females, and we found one couple that had reached an agreement. The female will lay her eggs on the leaves of plants in the mustard family.

Violets bloomed, and salmonberry, and subalpine (Cooley’s) buttercup, and the first coltsfoot of the season. Because we’d just had a ‘pollen storm’ for several days, there were layers of spruce pollen on leaves and rocks, not entirely washed off by little rains.

Much as I enjoy going up this trail, I think it should be reported that the trail has some bad spots. The avalanche that has lain over a bend in the trail for several years is still there, but it’s not hard to cross (with care). More worrisome were a couple of snow patches where one misstep could have sent a person on a very long slide straight down to the creek. The snow patches will, of course, disappear before long.

But there are more persistent and, in some cases, potentially dangerous places where erosion has worn the path to half of its normal width, with a steep drop-off to one side, and the board walk is quite rotten in many places. At the first level place after the Granite Basin trail leaves the Perseverance trail, the already-large mudhole is continually expanded as hikers try to avoid the mud. It is to be hoped that the agency in charge of this very popular trail will repair at least the most dangerous spots soon!

The pool at the top of the falls that marks the basin entrance didn’t seem to have its usual spotted sandpiper, although I’d heard this species calling at lower-elevation gravel bars. As we rounded the corner above the falls, a little gray bird shot downstream over the falls and disappeared. So we couldn’t watch a dipper bobbing along the shore of the pool this time. But I could hope they were nesting a short distance below the falls. For the past several years, a late snow bridge has covered the stream where dippers had previously nested for many years, so there was no nesting there recently. But this year, the snow bridge was gone and the nesting cliffs were largely exposed, so—just maybe—a pair of dippers could raise a family there.


… it may be creeping up on us!

The days grow longer and we all start wishing that spring would be here NOW! Indeed, spring is slowly, slowly springing. Perhaps it got a bit confused by the lack of a real winter? Or perhaps we are just a tad over-eager.

There are, in fact, a few signs that the new season is upon us. The flocks of varied thrushes that fossicked about on the beach fringes have dispersed, and we now hear the familiar song from many points in the forest, as they set up their breeding territories. Song sparrows are singing, too, a trifle rustily, but soon to be in good voice. Steller’s jays are now seen commonly in pairs, and their calls are more varied than in winter, or so it seems. Hooters (sooty grouse) are heard again on the hillsides. The robins are back, but I have yet to hear their song.

The red-breasted sapsuckers are here, checking out snags and light posts, tapping on trees and houses. Canada geese are busily grubbing up sedges from the wetlands, picking off the sharp, protective tips of the new shoots and biting off the nutritious new growth. Various reports come in: I heard a ruby-crowned kinglet, saw an early hummer, heard a junco sing.

As the ice melts on my home pond, mallards again arrive, drifting in the bit of open water at the outlet, marching across the ice, scavenging spilled bird seed. Even though the millions (apparently) of pine siskins seem to prefer feeding on the massive spruce seed crop and the alder seeds, some of them visit the feeder hanging over the pond and messily select certain sunflower seeds, dropping hundreds onto the pond. Squirrels and mice, as well as the mallards, make good use of the rejects. And, I happily see ‘my’ nuthatches again, after a long seasonal absence.

The most exciting sighting in the bird way was a small flock of rusty blackbirds in the Dredge Lake area. As usual in my limited experience with them, they were poking about in a shallow, brushy pond. But I didn’t get to watch them for long; they soon moved deeper into the thickets. I don’t see them very often as they migrate through here to the north country. Unfortunately, their population has declined dramatically in recent decades, for unknown reasons, so they are getting harder and harder to see.

Female rusty blackbird. Photo by Bob Armstrong

The plant world, too, is showing feeble signs of spring. Elderberry buds grow fat and shoots of cow parsnip peek up above the leaf litter. In some places, felt-leaf willow has borne fuzzy catkins for a week or two already. Blueberry shoots are ready to go, just waiting for the right moment. The first shoots of skunk cabbage to emerge from the muck were eagerly cropped by deer.

Mountain goats are back on the ledges near Nugget Falls. Beavers never really quit working this ‘winter’ but got busy every time the temperatures rose and the ice weakened. Bears, probably especially juveniles or males, have begun to emerge from winter dens: moms with cubs presumably wait somewhat longer, so the new cubs are strong enough to follow mom around the forest.

I can’t claim that spring has sprung, but it may be creeping up on us, all the same!

The flight of the hummingbird

(with Johannes Brahms)

A Juneau Jazz and Classics concert in the chapel at the Shrine provided some extra entertainment, in addition to wonderful music. To the consternation of audience and musicians, a hummingbird flew in through the mistakenly open door and zoomed straight up to the high windows in front.

There it fluttered futilely against the glass for long minutes. The musicians stopped playing a Brahms string quartet to ask if anything could be done about this distraction. Nothing practicable was available, so the music went on, many more minutes, to the end of the piece.

The stage manager then found a hummingbird feeder full of sugar water and offered it to the hummer on a high window ledge, but we couldn’t tell if the bird drank. And the bird refused to leave the window to follow the feeder out the door. So the stubborn hummer just continued to try to fly out the closed window.

After much cajoling and pleading, the crowd finally left the room. Then, as a few remaining folks watched, the exhausted bird slid down the long wall to the floor. An observer crept up to it, trapped it in a shirt, and gently hand-carried it out the door. There it was greeted by a number of lingering music-lovers. As recommended by hummingbird researchers, its captor placed the bird’s bill in an opening of the feeder, in hopes that it might drink a little, but again we could not be sure it did.

The bird was too weary to struggle, and seemed to have gone into torpor (an energy-saving, inactive mode). It was placed under a leaf in a flower basket near the feeder, now restored to its usual place. After a minute or so, its little black eye peered over the edge of the basket, so there was hope that it would soon visit the adjacent feeder. And the second concert went on as scheduled.

The story wasn’t quite over, though. A member of the audience, who had left before the bird was captured, told a family member on the East Coast about the plight of the bird in the chapel. So the bird’s fame spread from coast to coast. Furthermore, I’ve been told that this male rufous hummingbird is now on Facebook, along with a young admirer.

A few days later, a hike in Sheep Creek Valley found the Parks and Rec group strolling between dense stands of still-leafless salmonberry canes. Spring is coming late this year, and we didn’t hear the usual pleasant cacophony of bird song in the valley. Robins were there; we found a nest and some broken egg shells, indicating that some eggs had hatched. Fox sparrows sang in the willows but remained inconspicuous. A few Wilson’s warblers and Pacific wrens sang in the distance. At lunch on the streambank, a female rufous hummer buzzed the colorful packs and jackets.

A friend found an immobile and apparently torpid hummer perched at a feeder. After several minutes, a crow came along, hopped and flew toward the feeder, and butted the hummer with its bill. The hummer dropped off the feeder, the crow disappeared, and the fate of both is unknown. Do crows eat hummers? I’ve seen Steller’s jays try to catch them, and maybe crows would do so too.

An unrelated item: a recent beach walk yielded one interesting observation. A raven flew by with a large brownish object in its bill. When it landed on the logs at the top of the beach, I could see that its prey was a big Dungeness crab, probably almost eight inches wide. The raven held the crab properly—from the back, so the formidable claws were safely pointed away from the bird’s head. Clever bird!