The new music of the season
By Miranda Weiss
April 28, 2016
I heard my first snipe of the year while lying in bed the other evening with the window open. The snipe flies high in the air and makes a noise with its tail feathers called “winnowing,” a sound like woe, woe, woe that spirals up, getting faster and faster. It feels as though the neighborhood is filling up again with seasonals. I guess because it is. Just about each day there’s a new arrival or at least a new song. Fox sparrow, kinglet, varied thrush. The birds are coming home.
We’re lucky. We get them in their fancy breeding plumage. Dunlin, a small shorebird that spends winters in the Lower 48 and farther south, puts on a handsome rufous cloak and dark belly patch before flying through. Arctic tern conclude their marathon migration throughout Alaska from pack ice off the Antarctic—a roundtrip journey of about 25,000 miles—arriving here with brilliant red bills and sharp black caps, which are otherwise unremarkable during the off-season.
The most conspicuous arrival each spring is the sandhill crane. The first one I’d seen this year soared by while I was gardening the other day, announcing itself with its throaty, rattle-like call, sounding prehistoric and looking pterodactyl-ish with its massive wings that beat impossibly slowly. Now we’ll start seeing them everywhere … landing on the ball field next to the playground down the street, pecking around yards and undeveloped lots in the neighborhood, walking in tandem across the slough downstream from the float plane lake, and landing in meadows out of town.
Birders are arriving too, stationing themselves around town as they lean into their tripod-mounted scopes searching for some of these seasonal beauties and perhaps an accidental species from Asia mixed in.
A pair of eagles has, once again, nested very agreeably at the main intersection in town, where drive-thru customers at McDonald’s can monitor them while they wait for a cheeseburger. They’re in a different tree than last year’s dead snag. The tall, living spruce they’ve chosen is strategically placed next to a pullout where RVs can dump sewage. This will help keep eagle ogling traffic off the main road, I suppose.
Spring sounds different. As the trees leaf out, the foliage will mask some of the increasing road noise coming into town. But then the float planes will start buzzing around. And soon it will be a nonstop chorus of birds, sounding like the members of an orchestra are warming up, all without concern for one another. The varied thrush’s referee whistle call will sound out as if to stop them, but without effect.
This time of anticipation—as the birds begin to arrive but before they’re all here—might be the most exciting. Life is unfolding all around us. The elderberry bushes are starting to leaf out, but you can see the evening sunlight through their young leaves and still spot delicate warbler nests woven in among their halfway-dressed branches.
Miranda Weiss is a science and nature writer in Homer, Alaska. The author of Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska, she also wrote the Northern Lights blog for our website.