As spring progresses leaf buds swell, hillsides green and we can expect a burgeoning of migrating birds. Life is starting to flourish; plants, animals and insects (especially those pesky mosquitoes) are ready to take advantage of the coming short but sweet growing season. An army of insect eaters is already here or on its way to Interior Alaska — the songbirds.
The term songbirds refers to a perching bird with anatomical features that allow it to produce complex sounds that can be musical. Songbirds includes a wide variety of Interior Alaska birds from the raven weighing in around 1200 grams, to the diminutive golden-crowned kinglet weighing in at 6 grams (less than 1 graham cracker square). The familiar robin is a convenient size standard for songbird identification. You often hear “smaller than a robin”, or “larger than a robin”.
In the next few weeks our songbird army will swell in species and numbers. Several songbird species are already arrived, and some are year round residents like pine grosbeaks and chickadees. The common people-tolerant migrant American robin is busy foraging on open ground. Two robins foraging relatively close to each other are probably a pair. The male robin’s head is darker and its breast is brighter.
Compare! You may see robins gathering nesting materials. If you do find a nest observe from a distance so you do not draw predator attention to the nest.
There are hundreds of songbird species. In an average bird field guide songbirds occupy about 50% of the pages and many different families. The more common families you will see here include; woodpeckers, flycatchers, corvids, swallows, thrushes, warblers and sparrows.
Flycatchers are smaller than a robin, they are little brown birds that flit about in the tree tops catching insects. Their songs are distinctive variations on a whistle that help with identification. Once the leaves are out the sounds may be all that you will have to let you know there is a flycatcher up there.
Swallows, sparrows and warblers are also “smaller than”. Swallows perch and fly in the open. They are more likely to attract your attention with dazzling flight displays sometimes involving a floating white feather, or you may spy them perched in rows on overhead wires. Swallows do sing soft chirping and twittering sounds, but they are not very loud. Sparrows stick to grassy or brushy habitat where they perch on a prominent branch or tall blade of grass and repeat a distinct tune over and over. Sparrows are shades of brown and often streaked making them difficult to spot as they blend in with their surroundings.
Warblers are quick small birds that hang out among leafy tree branches never stopping for long in one place. Their songs are distinctive and pleasing and they are often brightly colored or marked, making them favorite birds to spot. The yellow warbler is bright yellow, and the always plentiful yellow-rumped warbler is fondly called the “butter-butt” for the bright yellow feathers on its backside.
Thrushes are the quintessential songbird in the same size as a robin category. They are woodland birds and well camouflaged for their life on the ground and in the trees. Their songs are melodic, often sounding like a flute echoing through the woods. Thrushes are often heard singing in the evening after other birds are quiet. Take time to enjoy the birds around your home and school or work. There is plenty there to fascinate for a lifetime.