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Life's about to spring from gloomy March

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2001

It's a typical March day. The rain is sheeting sideways and the wind is blowing 20 knots. The sky is gray with dark clouds roiling over the peaks and it looks like spring will never arrive.

I'm out at 7:30 a.m. to walk on the wetlands trail with my dogs. A raft of bufflehead ducks swim and dive in the river. The black and white males are performing their courtship display by rapidly bobbing their heads. They remind me of wind up toys. Their white head feathers are poofed out, giving them a more grand appearance. Two males are strutting for the gathering of drab females.

Farther along the trail in a large pond flooded by the tide, I watch another striking black and white duck attract his female with an energetic display. In a quick acrobatic movement, the male common goldeneye tosses his head back until it rests for a second on his back with his bill pointing to the sky.

Pulling binoculars from my inside my wet rain jacket, I focus on his yellow eye and round white cheek patch. As the duck calls to its mate, a tiny white cloud of warm breath is silhouetted against the dark water. There is something profound in this simple gesture: the little duck and I are linked for a moment as we both exhale a steamy breath into the chill March air.

In the middle of the pond I spot a pair of red-breasted mergansers. Their long shaggy head feathers blow sideways in the blustery wind as they engage in their mating water dance. Displaying for his mate, the male stretches up his dark green head, then dips his ruddy chest down into the water, and finally tilts his head up again extending the long slender bill.

Close to the shore several pairs of mallards sedately swim beside each other. Accustomed to people and dogs, they rarely take flight when normal trail activity occurs. Like a courtly minuet, an emerald-headed male faces a female, and bows to her. She bows to him. They repeat their polite and elegant ritual a few times before mating.

I reward the patient dogs with a biscuit and we turn toward home. As I walk I watch a pair of perching bald eagles. Soon they will be repairing their nest across the water, gathering dried grasses from the wetlands to pad the nest cup and breaking off cottonwood branches to weave new strength into the structure.

If I am lucky in the next few weeks, I will witness their spectacular aerial courtship display. Flying in tight formation one will suddenly tip up its wing and roll over to lock talons with the other eagle. Feet clutched together, they will spiral down through the air, spinning like a falling maple seed, releasing their grip just feet from the ground before flying away.

In more than 30 years in Juneau, I have seen this breathtaking natural drama only six times, most of them from the wetlands trail where open space provides a full view of the entire aerial ballet. For now I am content to watch the eagles sway on their windswept perch trees.

I pass a scraggly alder tree and notice its miniature cones have swollen in the spring rain and longer days. Now dangling from the branches, the snakelike catkins have crowned the trees with a rich halo of burgundy coloring. Near the alders, slender needles of grass emerge from last year's stubble and cast a faint green haze across the wetlands.

I step aside to let a four-inch long candlewick-sized earthworm crawl across the path. One wet March day all the earthworms seem to come alive at once, requiring careful placement of one's boots to avoid stepping on them. That's a signal the robins soon will migrate north to feed on this abundant food source.

The robin's song will mingle with those of the song sparrow, varied thrush, and ruby-crowned kinglet that fill the forest with clear strong melodies. Although many songbirds prefer the thick cover of evergreens, others use the bare-limbed deciduous trees, allowing themselves to be seen and heard. Today I see a song sparrow after searching the alders in pursuit of its pure notes. It sits on a branch about 10 feet away.

Indeed, it is a typical March day, but with a little sun and warmth, new life will erupt from the land, water and air. Today's activities are merely a prelude to the stunning growth yet to come.

Laurie Ferguson Craig is a keen observer of the daily activity and changing seasons along the Mendenhall Wetlands trail. Juneau Audubon Society meets the second Thursday of each month. E-mail Audubon members at ckent@alaska.net.



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