Birds flock to Visitor Center

Posted: Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cruising around by the Glacier Visitor Center is almost always interesting, even without the big, furry, charismatic beasts that climb the cottonwoods to eat catkins in the spring, or splash around in the creek after salmon in late summer and fall.

One day, in mid July, I did a quick walkabout there. The Arctic tern chicks were well grown and flying.

Even with our "tropical" summer, the lake levels didn't rise high enough to flood the nests before the chicks could walk.

So many tern parents were busy bringing fish to their chicks.

Violet-green swallows also had young ones winging about, though I don't know where this group nested - often in tree cavities and holes in the eaves of buildings. But they were busy feeding chicks on the wing.

The young ones flew around, calling and calling. And the parents would meet them in midair for a quick transfer of nutritious bugs - aerial refueling at its best.

A nest of barn swallows in the bus shed was full of enormous chicks.

It was hard to understand how they could all fit into the little cup of mud - and in fact, it looked like they did it by having two chicks face outward and two others facing the wall.

Interestingly, the parents did not necessarily deliver their loads of bugs to the outward-facing mouths, but sometimes reached over the heap of chicks to feed the mouths facing backward.

Over in the pavilion, however, it was a different story. There I saw barn swallows just building two new nests, carrying small gobs of mud to add to a partly built cup.

This seemed strange so late in the season. But I learned the reason why from one of the observant rangers.

A few days earlier, a family of Steller's jays entered the pavilion and raided the barn swallow nests.

Feathers from young barn swallows littered the floor as the adult jays stuffed the little bodies into the gaping maws of their hungry fledglings.

While providing a good meal, perhaps the adult jays were simultaneously showing their offspring how to be good marauders of other birds' nests.

Jays are among the most notorious predators of bird eggs and chicks in our region along with crows, ravens and red squirrels.

Parent birds may scream, flap and dive bomb the marauders, but it is usually in vain.

A mallard duck with six big ducklings foraged along the edges of ponds.

The ducklings looked almost like miniature adults except for the silly-looking powderpuff of down still on their backs.

Their flight feathers had not yet grown in fully, so their wings were pathetic little stumps, incapable of getting their owners airborne.

Sockeyes and Dolly Vardens had started to come in and were milling about in a pond near the lake.

The lake is so high, the fish have no trouble getting over the small beaver dams into the ponds.

The fish may mill about in the ponds for a week or more before ascending the stream - the sockeye to spawn and the dollies to eat salmon eggs.

Then the bruins will assemble at this perennial feeding trough, and bear watching will once again be a regular recreational opportunity.

Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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