FAIRBANKS — Hold on to your binoculars and spotting scope, this will be a long birding report as there are lots of new things to report this week. Last week’s cold spell has given way to warmer temperatures and mostly sunny skies this week and the birds have responded.
Good numbers of both Canada and white-fronted geese can still be seen regularly on the front fields of Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. The geese are mixed in with sandhill cranes and various waterfowl and the occasional trumpeter swan. Waterfowl diversity seems to have reached its peak this week. The list of waterfowl throughout the refuge includes: northern pintail, mallard, American wigeon and green-winged teal. Northern shovelers and bufflehead have joined in the mix — check them out on the seasonal pond on the way to Alaska Bird Observatory’s banding station.
Other arrival highlights on the refuge this week include the constant call of the lesser yellowlegs and solitary sandpiper and the occasional winnow of the Wilson’s snipe. The very welcome sight of violet-green and tree swallows wheeling about occurred on Thursday. Both white-crowned and Savannah sparrows (along with the many dark-eyed juncos) may greet you if you take a walk on one of field trails. A flock of more than 30 Lapland longspurs was seen using the fields next to ABO’s banding station this past week. If you walk near seasonal wetlands, you might hear groups of rusty blackbirds or a Hammond’s flycatcher. A stroll along the Boreal Forest Trail might produce a singing ruby-crowned kinglet or an elusive boreal chickadee.
It appears that most raptor species have made their way into the area. Folks have been reporting all falcon species — American kestrel, merlin and peregrine falcon with regularity. A sharp-shinned hawk was captured at the ABO banding station last week, and a northern goshawk was seen near the East Ramp of the Fairbanks International Airport on Tuesday. Northern harriers are being sighted daily at Creamer’s Field. Ospreys are becoming more numerous in the area; one was seen sitting on a utility pole near the town of Fox and another was seen along Piledriver Slough between Eielson Air Force Base and Eielson Farm Road during a paddle trip — both sightings were on Sunday. The dark-phase red-tailed (Harlan’s) hawk pair is using the University of Alaska campus as part of its territory. A rare sighting of a short-eared owl flying low over Farmer’s Loop Road and headed towards Goldstream Valley took place the evening of May 4.
As mentioned earlier, several shorebird species have arrived in town — take a walk near a wetland and or an open field and you’ll probably see or hear solitary sandpipers, lesser yellowlegs, semipalmated plovers or Wilson’s snipe. Whimbrel have arrived into town this past week as well. A flock of eight birds was reported off of Peger Road near the Fairbanks Surgery Center on Tuesday. In the upcoming weeks, we might see the arrival of the smaller shorebirds (called ‘peeps’) and Hudsonian godwits before they head to the North Slope to breed. A first of the year sighting of a belted kingfisher was on Sunday along the Chatanika River, near the Cripple Creek campground. Ring-necked ducks and horned grebes were a welcome sight in town this past week.
Songbird migration was also in full-swing this past week, with many of our “short-distance” migrants arriving into town. American tree, fox, savannah and white-crowned sparrows have recently arrived and are already starting to sing. Several folks have reported the flute-like songs of both hermit and Swainson’s thrush in their neighborhoods. Listen for their flutey melodious songs as you take a walk through the woods and test yourself in their identification. Which species spirals up and which one stays on the same pitch? Often times you hear these birds rather than seeing them. We’re still awaiting the arrival of gray-cheeked thrushes, which should arrive during the last week of May. American robins are already starting to nest build. Both yellow-rumped (Myrtle) and orange-crowned warblers have returned to the area and are singing. We’ve yet to see or hear the bulk of warbler species — such as Townsend’s, Wilson’s and yellow warbler and northern waterthrush. Some of these species are “long-distance” migrants — birds returning from their wintering grounds in Central and South America. The next few weeks should produce more long-traveling species such as alder flycatcher and blackpoll warbler.
Here’s what was going on this week in some of the area’s birding hotspots:
Peat Ponds (intersection of Goldstream and Murphy Dome Roads): A lot of the ice is gone from these ponds. The following species were observed this past weekend: a horned grebe was found in the waterfowl mix of species including: mallard, northern pintail, northern shoveler, green-winged teal, and American wigeon. Lesser yellowlegs and mew gull were also seen. A Lincoln’s sparrow was heard and not seen; this is not unusual as these birds specialize in skulking in wetlands. A rusty blackbird was also seen here. Red-winged blackbirds have not been seen or heard here yet. This is a great spot to see this uncommon Interior blackbird species.
Cushman Ponds/Tanana Lakes: Over the weekend, several trips were made to this great birding spot. The long list of notable species seen or heard here includes: bufflehead and canvasback (first of year sightings for this species), 31 snow geese (an uncommonly large flock for this species in the Interior during spring), trumpeter swan, lesser yellowlegs, Swainson’s thrush and American tree and white-crowned sparrows. Three Arctic terns were seen here on Monday — a first of the year sighting for this long-traveled species. Also seen was a sharp-tailed grouse: one was sitting atop a bare tree in a recently cut-over area on South Cushman Street across from Northland Wood on Saturday.
Float Plane Ponds/Airport Ponds: The float plane ponds are about half open. Species seen here over the weekend include: American wigeon, green-winged teal, northern pintail and Barrow’s goldeneye. Bonaparte’s and mew gulls, common ravens and American robins were here as well.
Both ponds in front of the airport are free of ice. The east pond contained Bonaparte’s gulls, common goldeneye, mallard and pair of American robins, yellow-rumped (Myrtle) warbler and dark-eyed juncos. The west pond also had common goldeneye and a pair of mating Bonaparte’s gulls. In addition, American wigeon, green-winged teal and northern pintail, as well as mew gull were seen at this pond. Lesser yellowlegs and semipalmated plover are also using both front ponds. The sloughs behind the airport are ice-free as well. Species seen here include herring gull, an adult bald eagle, northern flicker and American robin. Waterfowl species included good numbers of northern pintail, common goldeneye, a pair of scaup species and mallard.
Smith Lake: The lake off Sheep Creek Road is completely free of ice. Species being seen and heard here include Bonaparte’s, herring and mew gulls, bufflehead, northern pintail, mallard, American wigeon, and canvasback. A Pacific loon was here on Tuesday. A Wilson’s snipe was heard calling from the Sheep Creek side of the lake. Songbirds seen or heard here include ruby-crowned kinglet, American robin, Bohemian waxwing, yellow-rumped (Myrtle) warbler, dark-eyed junco and rusty blackbird.
Down the Richardson Highway: There was a lot of bird activity in the Delta agricultural area over the weekend. Large numbers of waterfowl, raptors and sandhill cranes were using the area and migrating north. Numerous flocks of rusty blackbirds, Lapland longspurs, and horned larks were seen. Other highlights included six short-eared owls and a great gray owl on Barley Way.
Up the Elliot Highway: A mountain bluebird was seen near 14 Mile over the weekend.
Sue Guers is a research biologist for the Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks. She compiles weekly birding reports for the News-Miner outdoors section during the spring migration. Please contribute to these reports by calling in your bird sightings to the Alaska Bird Observatory (451-7159 or www.alaskabird.org) or the Arctic Audubon Society birding hotline (451-9213).