Just waiting on the warmer weather

For one local hiker, Ruby-crowned kinglet signifies spring's arrival

Posted: Friday, April 09, 2010

It's now official.

Photo By Jos Bakker
Photo By Jos Bakker

On a fine Easter Sunday, I heard my first ruby-crowned kinglet, which - for me - is when spring begins. The song sparrows, juncos and varied thrushes have been singing for a couple of weeks, but it's the ruby-crowns that mean it's really going to happen. The closely related golden-crowned kinglets stay here all winter, but the ruby-crowns winter along the west coast south of us, and in the southern states and Mexico.

The singer I heard was in the conifers along the dike trail, but soon the song will be heard throughout the spruce-hemlock forest, as more birds arrive and take up breeding territories. They're usually up in the canopy, but sometimes they forage for little bugs in the shrub layer, where we can get a good look at them. Look for a tiny drab bird that has wing bars and a white eye-ring and one that frequently flicks its wings as it moves along a branch. Only the male has a red crown, which is seen only when he's excited and raises his crown feathers.

Other sightings along the dike trail included a male downy woodpecker, apparently sunning itself on a dead branch. Big flocks of robins circulated around the wetlands, and some sang or scolded from the tops of alders. Song sparrows sang in the brush all along the trail, and juncos flitted in and out. There were a few ducks in the sloughs and ponds (bufflehead, goldeneye, wigeon and the usual mallards) but on this day I was especially focused on 'dicky birds' - meaning songbirds and other small birds, such as woodpeckers.

Shorebirds will also soon be migrating northward, and many of them stop over on the tideflats outboard of the dike trail. The Mendenhall Wetlands have been officially recognized as an area that is very important to migrating shorebirds. Some of the shorebirds have come a very long way; several of these species spends the winter way down south in Chile and Argentina. They stop here to rest and to feed on the rich supply of invertebrates that lurk in the mud and sloughs. However, they still have a long way to travel as they head to the tundra to nest. They should be left to rest and feed in peace, not spooked up by careless humans or by roaming dogs.

On the way back to the new parking area, I noticed that we now have a wonderful view of the sewage treatment plant, which used to be screened by tall spruces. Other rearrangements by the airport will be interesting to follow as old habitats are replaced by other things.

After cruising the dike trail, I headed up to some of my favorite haunts by the glacier. Purple mountain saxifrage was blooming in some areas - another good signal of the arrival of spring. Despite several visits to this area, I have not seen the dippers recently; the same ones that will probably nest along Steep Creek. Some observers, however, say these birds are there.

A few days earlier, a friend and I found the scat of a small carnivore (coyote or marten?) on top of a cliff. All we could see of its contents was a tiny claw and a bit of fur, so I later collected and dissected it (in water, to help loosen it up). I found mostly mud and some flocculent material, but there were also a few well-munched-up bone fragments - just enough to suggest that the predator had probably caught a squirrel. Some folks find these things disgusting, but to a curious naturalist, they tell stories. Or, as was this case, only part of the story.

Other sightings: A raven with porcupine quills sticking out of its throat. I hope it has a friend that will groom away those quills!

And the beavers are getting active again in the ponds by the visitor center. They've spent the winter indoors, in the dark, living off their stored body fat and a winter cache of branches in front of the lodge. Talk about cabin fever! With a little open water, they're out and about again.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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