Birds are returning to Lynn Canal

A dark-eyed junco
A dark-eyed junco (Dave Menke/USFWS)

We have just passed the equinox. The snow is melting fast, and the land is waking up around us — and bird activity is increasing noticeably. KHNS spoke with some local bird enthusiasts to find out who is doing what.

Stacie Evans is the science director at the Takshanuk Watershed Council, and an avid birder. She heard a varied thrush a few days ago.

“One of those really obvious noises that we hear in the spring,” she said. “So they are around. And sometimes they’ll even be around earlier than now, you just don’t detect them because they are not making their mating call yet.”

A varied thrush
A varied thrush (Courtesy Bob Armstrong)

Evans says varied thrushes spend the winter not very far south of here, so they come back early. She has also heard pacific wrens and dark-eyed juncos, who have returned to the upper Lynn Canal to breed.

She expects we will start seeing robins soon.

“They are starting to overwinter in more northern habitats than they used to, so they are pretty close and they might take advantage of a warm period to hop over here and take advantage of whatever food might be available. So it’s not totally unusual to see a robin in the winter, but it’s becoming more common,” Evans said.

Dan Egolf is a longtime local birder and a naturalist guide at the company he owns, Alaska Nature Tours. He also has stories of birds stretching their seasonal habits.

“One year we had a hummingbird, I think it was Anna’s hummingbird that stayed around way into the winter. The person that had the hummingbird feeder put a heat light by it so that it would kind of warm-up,” he said.

Egolf mentions some of his favorite summer residents.

“There’s pigeon guillemots that nest underneath Port Chilkoot dock,” he said. “They are an interesting little bird that has a lifestyle like a duck but doesn’t at all look like a duck — it has a little pigeon beak. They probably start nesting in May, and then later in the summer by around June or July we see the parents and a fledgling flying around underneath the dock.”

Birders flock together on Facebook. There is a group called Haines Birders where members share photos and observations. Evans says she recently received a video of a killdeer on the Chilkat beach. That is another early arrival.

Other birds are just passing through. There are reports of groups of snow buntings in Haines.

“They are interesting because the males tend to pass through really early to get to their northern breeding grounds because territory is fairly scarce, and they can tolerate quite a bit of snow on the ground,” Evans said.

She says soon the beaches will be crowded with migratory birds. The shores of the upper Lynn Canal are the last stop before those birds enter the interior.

“Migratory birds have flown a really long way to get here,” Evans said. “They have exhausted a lot of resources and energy and we are the terminus of the marine resources they have on their migratory route, so that when they are here, it is sort of their last chance to really fuel up before they have to fly all the way to the high Arctic.”

It is a delicate time for those birds. Evans says beachgoers can help them along their journey by giving them space.

“It’s really important that we try not to disturb them as much as possible, maybe do your best to try not to flush the birds that are trying to feed there,” she said.

Dan Egolf says the Lynn Canal is at the edge of the Pacific flyway. Most birds remain on the outer coast, where they can be carried by steady winds. He says he has been there at the height of the migration, when 10,000 birds per hour passed overhead.

Egolf says some migrators sometimes linger in the Lynn Canal.

“Occasionally we’ll get a lot of shorebirds in town,” he said. “The mountain passes have late spring storms and it jams the birds down here. I recall a time when there was a bunch of Dunlins on the parade grounds, so we keep our eyes peeled.”

Some birds choose to not travel at all — notably eagles and ravens. Some are already starting to nest. And chickadees are well adapted to the cold despite their small size. To survive they have to eat constantly. Crossbills and grosbeaks also feast all winter.

“They feed on the high bush cranberries,” he said. “High bush cranberries will freeze right on the  brush and be there throughout the winter, and they fly down and eat what looks like little popsicles.”

Whatever their lifestyles, birds seem to bring joy to us.

Evans says this is the case for her.

“You know there has actually been some studies that have shown that bird song is linked to better mood or better mental health, so it’s not just the light coming back that gives us a little bit of a boost. Sometimes it’s just hearing those bird songs again,” she said.

More birds are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

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