Ducks and swans among spring's messengers

Zoom in on Wildlife

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2006

The booming hoots of blue grouse are beginning to resonate through the forests of Southeast Alaska. Southeast is home to Alaska's blue grouse population, and these vocal "hooters" are males hoping to attract mates. Hooters aren't the only animals coming out of the woodwork as Southeast Alaska warms to the longer, milder days of spring.

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Skunk cabbage is poking up in damp areas of the woods, bright yellow pointed spears that will elongate and unfurl if deer don't get them first. Deer have been pawing through the patchy snow and soil to unearth this first spring edible sprout. As spring progresses, you'll see leaves and flowers with tell-tale nibble and bite marks from this kind of early season herbivory.

Swans are moving through Southeast Alaska to nesting areas farther north. I've seen these graceful, giant white birds winging their way north up Gastineau Channel, and last week more than a dozen were gathered at the small patches of open water around the inflow and outflow to Windfall Lake. I've seen them at Cowee Creek as well. Large numbers of trumpeter swans gather this time of year in the Yukon near Whitehorse, and I suspect we are seeing both trumpeter swans and slightly smaller tundra swans. At about 25 pounds, with a 6- to 8-foot wingspan, trumpeter swans are the largest waterfowl (and one of the largest birds) in North America.

We're lucky to see trumpeter swans. These birds were on the brink of extinction 100 years ago. Unlimited shooting and a market for eggs, skins and feathers reduced the entire population to a few dozen pairs down south, and a small population here in Alaska. The survival of that isolated and unmolested Alaska population is credited as a key factor in the survival of the species. The rebound of trumpeter swans is one of the major conservation success stories of the past century.

Swans aren't the only waterfowl on the move. Harlequin ducks, one of the most beautiful and striking ducks in America, nest in Southeast. This is a good time to see them gathering in the Inside Passage around Juneau. A pair has been hanging out in Harris harbor all week, and others can be seen in Gastineau Channel. The males look dark from a distance, but a closer look reveals their vivid plumage. The hens are worth a close look as well, as you may be seeing them again in a few months when you are hiking up trails such as Perseverance or Sheep Creek. These ducks move up into freshwater streams to nest and mate. The male heads back to sea after mating and the female will raise a brood of ducklings. It's possible to catch sight of the agile ducklings surfing down the rapids of Gold Creek and other Juneau-area streams.

This is a transitional time, and representatives of the many sea ducks more common here in winter can still be seen. Buffleheads, diminutive cousins to the goldeneyes, are around, and a very watchable pair has spent the winter in the tidal pond next to the Department of Labor Building just south of the Douglas Bridge. Barrow's goldeneye and common mergansers are still pretty abundant. A group of American widgeon were mixed in with the mallards dabbling at the mouth of Gold Creek this week - look for the ducks with the white forehead and underparts.

• Riley Woodford is a writer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation, and is the editor of the online publication, Alaska Wildlife News. His column on natural history and wildlife viewing appears every other Sunday in the Juneau Empire. For comments or questions, he can be reached at riley_woodford@fishgame.state.ak.us.



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