April 5, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 14

Wild Things

By Pam Randles

Birds are arriving for spring. Pigeon guillemots and surf scoters have come from the open ocean to breed. The guillemots, with their red feet and white shoulder patch, nest on rocky ledges and under ship docks. Scoters gather by the thousands to fuel up and choose mates. Little is known about their nesting except that they nest on ground in tundra habitats. They pass through in spring and fall and head south as far as northern Mexico.

Our rufous hummingbirds winter as far as central Mexico and migrate north sooner than other hummingbirds. They usually arrive from late March to mid-April, with the males in the lead. They tend to arrive three or four days after they’re reported in Juneau. As of March 24, they had arrived in northern Washington. Rufous hummingbirds are better adapted to cold than other species. They can do mini hibernations several times a day to conserve energy. They migrate individually, taking advantage of northbound tail winds.

Two thrushes are our traditional spring harbingers. Varied thrushes winter in northern Baja, and when they arrive here, stake their forest territories with piercing, single-note whistles. More easily heard than seen, they arrive here from late March to late April.

The robins arrive anywhere from March 1 to April 30. The males lead, stake out territory, and immediately go to the top of their tree and start singing their territorial song that sounds like “38-38-38.” Robins have five other calls – a mild alarm, an urgent alarm, a hawk warning, and two conversational calls. They come from as far south as Bermuda and Guatemala. This year, warm weather to the south has prompted the robins to move north a bit sooner than usual.

When the average daily temperature reaches about 37 degrees F., robins begin to arrive. As of March 21, they had been observed north of the Canadian border. Personal data since 1999 suggest robins, thrushes and hummingbirds seem to be arriving slightly earlier than they used to.

Other birds are rolling out their spring repertoire as well. The owls are starting to hoot, and the hooters (sooty grouse) to thump. Before DNA testing, sooty grouse and dusky grouse were lumped together as blue grouse. After DNA testing, it turns out the coastal blue grouse (sooty) is a different species than the Interior grouse.

In mid- to late May, skunk cabbage will begin to emerge. When the snow gets thin enough that sunlight can penetrate to the skunk cabbage roots, the plant begins to produce heat up to 70 degrees to melt the snow. The strategy of skunk cabbage is to flower first and attract the early pollinators by smelling skunky.

Another early plant is willow. Pussy willows are the flowers of the willow and they emerge before leaves.This is one of the sources of food for the hummingbirds, along with insects.

Bears may emerge in April. Look high on slopes for dirty-looking streaks where bears have emerged from their dens. Adults emerge first and sows with cubs last.

If you have questions or observations, call the Takshanuk Watershed Council, 766-3542.