Fall migration pressing onward

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2001

With the passage of the fall solstice, bird migration begins to be more urgent as winter creeps down from the mountains and Arctic latitudes.

Although many land and shorebirds have already passed south through the Juneau area, many birds are still migrating through local waters, forests and marshes.

One of the interesting woodpecker species that seems to be relatively more conspicuous this fall during migration is the northern flicker, which comes in yellow-shafted and red-shafted varieties. This large, white-rumped, woodpecker likes to forage on the ground along shorelines and in meadows and muskegs.

The red-shafted flicker is the western form, which shows conspicuous salmon-colored wing linings in flight and a red mustache on the male. The yellow-shafted flicker, although thought of as the eastern form, is actually more common in Juneau and the rest of Alaska. With yellow wing linings, a bit of red on the nape of the neck and a black mustache (males only), this form can be easily distinguished from the red-shafted with a good look - although hybrid forms are also seen. It's a common bird in the Lower 48 but northern flickers are usually scarce in Juneau.

Although most swallow species begin gathering into large flocks and outmigrating from Alaska in July and early August, a few birds linger into September. It was therefore quite a sight on Sept. 24 when a female purple martin, the largest species of swallow in North America, was seen winging about an Auke Bay neighborhood while it hawked insects. Although it apparently only stayed for a few hours, it was seen by several local birders. This was only the first confirmed (seen by several knowledgeable birders) sighting of this species in Juneau, although there are several summer sightings by individual observers. Given that the latest sighting date of this species in British Columbia is only Sept. 22, it is obvious that this bird was well off the normal path.

The warbler migration will wind down almost completely in October with the last few yellow-rumped and orange-crowned warblers moving through the area. There will continue to be some sparrows moving through the local thickets with Brotherhood Park and the Mendenhall Wetlands dike trail a good place to see small flocks of Savannah, Lincoln's, golden-crowned, and white-crowned sparrows. Mixed in with these species will also be a few song and fox sparrows. These species like to feed on various seeds and will readily come to small (to avoid attracting bears) quantities of mixed birdseed scattered out on the ground.

Waterfowl migrations into the Juneau area will peak in October as large numbers of both dabbling and diving ducks move through the area.

One of the most spectacular species, the trumpeter swan, has already begun to move through the Juneau area as five were seen at Eagle Beach on Sept. 20. Sea ducks such as scoters and goldeneyes will also be returning en masse in the coming weeks, mixed in with smaller numbers of grebes and loons.

The gull migration is also well underway with thousands stopping in Gastineau Channel, attracted by local fish-processing activities and late runs of salmon. Recent sightings of unusual gulls have included an adult slaty-backed gull, which is normally found in Asia and far western Alaska. Probably the most common gull in migration in the Juneau area is the mew gull, which is one of the smaller gulls with some black in its wingtips, and peak numbers of this species in Gastineau Channel probably exceed 3,000.

Many hawks are also moving through Juneau in September and October.

Northern harriers, conspicuous by their often low, meandering flight during which they show a white rump patch, are often seen over the Mendenhall Wetlands. An osprey, a large fish-eating hawk with a white underside, has also been seen in recent weeks near the floatplane pond. Normally this species is only briefly seen in migration.

Peregrine falcons have also been seen recently zipping by the wetlands, while its smaller falcon cousin, the American kestrel, often hovers over the wetlands while it searches for small mammals, birds and insects. All of these species can also be seen by hikers up in the mountains as these birds often follow ridges either by soaring (northern harriers) or zipping along at what seem to be break-neck speeds (peregrine falcons). If and when the weather clears, watching for hawks on your favorite mountain ridge while enjoying the fall colors, is an enjoyable way to spend a crisp fall day.

Paul Suchanek is an avid local birder. Sandy Harbanuk will speak about the Juneau Raptor Center at the Oct. 11 meeting of Juneau Audubon Society beginning at 7:30 p.m. in Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School library.

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