A day for the birds: May 10 set aside for migrants

Posted: Sunday, May 04, 2003

Spring brings a sense of anticipation to all those who cherish the Alaska outdoors. Anglers anticipate catching the first king salmon or Dolly Varden of the season, while others anticipate warm weather for gardening, playing softball or hiking the high mountain ridges.

For birders, spring brings a keen anticipation of the many migrant songbirds that have wintered far south of Juneau. Some migrants breed locally while others are heading to their breeding areas in northern Alaska and Canada. In addition to the beauty of their plumage, these migrants also offer an auditory treat as their songs ring through the woodlands.

In late April, as Juneau braces for the annual influx of tourists arriving on cruise ships, jets and by ferries, songbirds also are arriving or passing through in increasing numbers. Peak movements occur in May although some birds are still moving northward as late as mid-June. Many of these birds have traveled from Mexico and Central America, while some have even wintered in South America.

In recognition of these avian travelers, International Migratory Bird Day will be celebrated Saturday, May 10. One of the main purposes of the event is to raise awareness that bird populations depend upon conservation of both winter and breeding grounds, as well as migration routes in between. As an example, although Alaska offers huge areas of pristine habitat for breeding birds, deforestation in winter grounds in Mexico or Central America could reduce bird numbers of many species breeding in Alaska.

A few events will be held locally to celebrate this day for the birds. Bob Armstrong will lead an Audubon bird walk on the Mendenhall Wetlands beginning at the end of Radcliffe Road at 8 a.m. May 10. Other presentations are planned on the evening of May 15 at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Juneau birds that winter primarily south of the U.S.-Mexico border include diverse groups of songbirds such as warblers, swallows, thrushes and flycatchers. All told, there are about 350 species of these "neotropical migrants" who breed in the United States but winter south of the border.

Wood warblers are the migrants most eagerly awaited by birders in the Juneau area. These small, often very colorful birds are found only in the Western hemisphere, and are famous worldwide for their beauty and varied songs.

Juneau has hosted at least 16 species of wood warblers with another three species being reported by single observers. Probably the most familiar warbler found in Juneau is the aptly named yellow-rumped warbler, informally labeled with the moniker "butter-butt." This species winters from the southern United States to Central America and is generally the first warbler to arrive in Juneau. This year, the first yellow-rumped warbler was seen here April 22.

The last warbler species to arrive in Juneau is the American redstart; it normally doesn't show up until about June 1. Since some redstarts might have traveled from Ecuador or Brazil, it is not surprising that this species is generally relatively late in arriving.

One of the most beautiful warblers found commonly in Juneau is the Townsend's warbler, which spends most of its time high in spruce trees where it often is difficult to see. Males have a black throat, yellow upper breast and a white belly with heavy black streaks down the flanks. The face is yellow with a distinctive black face mask. When seen in bright sunshine, the yellow feathers glow brilliantly. Females are not quite as brilliant as the males but are similarly marked. This species winters primarily in Mexico with some birds ranging further south to Honduras and Nicaragua.

In contrast to the many brightly colored warblers, the group of songbirds known as flycatchers are typically drab in comparison and some species appear nearly identical. One of the drabbest species of flycatchers, the Pacific-slope flycatcher, is common in Juneau forests. The often-heard call of the male is a two-parted whistle, which seems to be designed to attract your attention. It is nearly impossible to get a good look at calling males as they spend most of their time about 20 to 30 feet off the ground in dense spruce or hemlock trees. These flycatchers winter in western Mexico.

The Southeast Wild column is provided by the Juneau Audubon Society. Mike Blackwell and Jim Johnson will present a slide show on their 5,000-km bicycle excursion from Arica, Chile, on the Peruvian border, to Ushuaia de Argentina, at the end of the road in Tierra del Fuego, when the society meets at 7:30 p.m. May 8 in the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School library.

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