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Return of migratory birds means spring has sprung in Fairbanks

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Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2012 6:13 am | Updated: 1:50 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - After a tough, long winter, the warm afternoon air, in combination with almost 16 hours of daylight, make for great conditions for humans and birds alike.

With temperatures at 60 degrees, ponds, lakes and rivers are slowly breaking up, and the snow should soon be a distant memory. Some migrants are taking advantage of this weather, with a few species making their way into the area during the past week.

The first harbingers of spring (for me at least) are the lovely, black and white snow buntings, usually found in flocks feeding on seeds in fields and wheeling about when a person or predator approaches.

The first buntings were reported in Tanacross using the village airfield on Feb. 15, with more being seen along the Alaska Highway near Tok as the month progressed. Here in Fairbanks and points south, folks began reporting them by mid-March; one flock had a Lapland longspur mixed in.

Buntings are still being reported, so if you’re in an open area with grasses poking up through the snow, keep a lookout for the black and white flashes. Raptors also are making a showing. The first sharp-shinned hawk of the season was reported on April 8. Sightings of bald eagles were reported all winter; it appears that a few individuals never left the area, probably feeding on waterfowl using the open areas of the Chena River. It looks like breeding season has begun (or will soon) for this species; on March 6, a bald eagle was seen near a known nest site on the Tanana River a few weeks ago.

The buteos (large soaring hawks) have arrived as well — the first red-tailed hawk was seen near the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus roundabout on April 10, and another seen near the Mitchell Expressway on April 12h. A male northern harrier was reported using the front fields at Creamer’s Field MIgratory Waterfowl Refuge on April 13, while an American kestrel was seen sitting on the power lines on the south side of Chena Hot Springs Road, at Gettinger’s hay fields near 3 Mile. Sightings and hootings of our resident owl species, such as northern hawk, great-horned, great gray and boreal owls are ramping up — breeding season has begun for these species, so they will soon become very secretive.

The parking lot and fields at Creamer’s Field have been getting more crowded this week as waterfowl arrive in town and people flock to see them. The first Canada geese of the season were seen at Creamer’s Field on April 8 and there were more than 350 geese in the fields Wednesday morning. The geese were beaten this year by trumpeter swans — two swans showed up on April 7, the first time in many years that swans beat the geese to Creamer’s Field. Their timing was impeccable, as barley had just been spread in the front fields. Greater white-fronted geese have also made an appearance at Creamer’s; six were counted on April 12. A lone snow goose was seen using the front viewing area by the parking lot on Tuesday. A first of the year sighting of gulls (most likely mew gulls) were also reported from Creamer’s Field on April 11.

Mallards, northern pintails, common goldeneyes and green-winged teal

also made a showing over the past weekend and there were more than 160 mallards swimming in the snow melt ponds at Creamer’s Field on Wednesday morning. More migrant waterfowl species should be arriving shortly as the snow melts and the water opens up.

Northern shrikes are starting to appear in greater numbers as spring approaches — this species can nest early, so be on the lookout for any breeding behaviors.

Red-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers, two species experiencing range expansions in interior Alaska, have been seen and heard around Fairbanks.

Common redpolls and the resident woodpeckers are still around in full force — take advantage of seeing these guys now, for when breeding season starts (or could have begun by now) they’ll be quietly nesting.

Migrant songbirds are taking advantage of the nice weather, as a few species have arrived in town a few days earlier than normal. A male rusty blackbird was spotted near the seasonal pond at Creamer’s on Wednesday afternoon, which is about two weeks earlier than average.

Multiple sightings of American robin and dark-eyed juncos have been reported by folks throughout the area. Many of these birds are males and have already begun singing. A little further afield, five mountain bluebirds were spotted using the recently burned areas around Tolovana Hot Springs this past 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 on the website (www.alaskabird.org) or the Arctic Audubon Society Birding hotline (451-9213).

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