Of bird walks and ruby-crowns

Of bird walks and ruby-crowns

Sherwonit, Bill

The sky is darkly overcast and the air chill, with temperatures in the high 30s, as I leave my house at 5:30 on a morning in early May. Normally I’d sleep until 7 or 7:30. But this morning is special. Today the Anchorage Audubon Society begins its annual “morning songbird series.”

Once a week, for the next month, local birding enthusiasts of all abilities will gather for dawn walks through forest and meadow. Sometimes a halfdozen people will show up, other times 30. The largest groups tend to be those early in the season, before the 5 a.m. wake-ups have taken their toll. We rendezvous at 6 at predetermined points: today it’s John’s Park, next week, Hillside Park. Later in the month, we’ll visit Russian Jack Springs and Glen Alps. Led by local experts, we learn to identify the songs of both resident and migrant species. And when we’re lucky, we see the birds themselves, learn to match song with singer.

This is my fourth summer of Audubon walks, and I’m proof that the process works. Four years ago, I could count on one hand the avian voices I easily recognized. Now, thanks largely to these early morning walks (supplemented by a bird-song tape, some additional tutoring and independent study), I’m closer to two dozen species. Not that I’m bragging: These are modest accomplishments when compared to skills of hotshot birders. And I still get confused, especially as the season progresses and numerous species of warblers and sparrows fill the air with sound-alike songs. But it’s wonderful to walk out of my house, hear a chorus of avian music, and know which song belongs to a varied thrush and which to a ruby-crowned kinglet. Or to a golden-crowned sparrow, or yellowrumped warbler.

And over time, it’s become clear that these morning walks are about more than song identification, expanded species recognition and birder camaraderie. Along with my observation of the seasonal activity around my feeder, the walks have inspired me to learn something about the lives of songbirds that inhabit Anchorage, whether yearround or seasonally. I’ve begun to notice the comings and goings of different migrants and to learn the habitats in which they’re most likely to be found.

Without intending to do so, I’ve developed favorites. One is the rubycrowned kinglet (Regulus calendula). Among the smallest of songbirds, the ruby-crown weighs less than a third of an ounce, yet its song is one of the loudest.

Until four years ago, I’d never heard of the ruby-crowned kinglet, never noticed the way that male members of the species ritually perch high atop trees each spring to announce their presence and proclaim breeding territories with melodious tunes. Now I hear them daily throughout much of spring and early summer. Occasionally I’ll spot one perched up high or, more rarely, hunting for insects among alderwillow thickets that border the yard. When singing, a ruby-crown’s entire body seems to quiver with the effortand, I like to think, with passion.

In its coloring the ruby-crown is rather plain, even drab, and it’s probably a species that I once tossed into the LGB (little gray bird) category. The bird’s head and back are olive, its undersides grayish. And while males have red crown feathers-hence the name-they’re revealed only when the bird becomes excited, as by a potential mate, rival or threat. I once watched two loudly chattering ruby-crown males chase each other through a spruce grove, their crowns raised high.

Though their coloring may be unremarkable, ruby-crowned kinglets have other outstanding traits, including a hyperactive nature: They seem to flit about constantly. Shifting nervously from one position to another while singing on treetops, and even when perched and feeding in bushes, they flick their wings open and closed, in apparent agitation. And then, of course, there’s the voice: Once learned, the ruby-crown’s long, warbled tune is easily recognizable, as is the bird’s tendency to get “stuck” in certain parts of the song, repeating the same refrain over and over, like a broken record.

The singing is what I love most about ruby-crowned kinglets. Near my home in the hills above Anchorage their loud, bright voices herald the arrival of spring, just as the honkings of Canada geese do in the flatlands below. These songs tell me that kinglets have returned for another nesting season, that we’re again sharing the landscape. They serve as another connection to this place that I live in, remind me to pay attention to what’s going on around me, speak to me of zestful life.

I can hardly claim that I’ve discovered a pattern, because I’ve been tracking these things for only a few springs. But in each of the last three years, ruby-crowns were among the first migrant songbirds I heard (along with varied thrushes and robins) from my yard, which got me wondering about their travels outside Alaska.

It turns out that little is known about the migratory patterns of Alaska’s ruby-crowned kinglets, except that they normally arrive in April and depart in October. Local ornithologists say that Anchoragearea ruby-crowns probably spend their winters in the western United States, Mexico, or even Central America, and then travel up the West Coast in small groups, mixed with other songbird species. Migrants to interior Alaska, meanwhile, tend to over-winter in the eastern United States.

Ruby-crowned kinglets range throughout much of Alaska, their travel limited only by their need for conifer forests in which to nest and raise their young. Surveys have shown them to be most abundant in southeastern Alaska’s temperate rain forest, and only “moderately” plentiful in southcentral Alaska. They occur in sparser numbers throughout the Interior, but have been found at the farthest edges of the boreal forest on the YukonKuskokwim Delta; and above the Arctic Circle, along the southern flanks of the Brooks Range nearly to the Chukchi Sea coast.

Because ruby-crowns prefer to raise their young high in spruce and other conifers, their nesting behavior is as difficult to study as their migratory patterns. The research that has been done shows that the birds build pendulous nests of mosses, grasses, twigs, and sometimes even moose hair; these structures dangle from tree branches like hanging baskets. Females lay four to 10 eggs, a surprisingly large clutch for so small a bird. Incubation lasts about two weeks and fledging occurs 16 days after that. In Anchorage, young birds are testing their wings by early July.

Some ruby-crowns remain in Alaska through the winter, which raises questions about how they survive both the cold and the seasonal food shortage. Ornithologists have no good answers, though ruby-crowns, which are mainly insect eaters, are known to sometimes consume berries and seeds in winter.

I enjoy learning these bits and pieces of the ruby-crowned kinglet’s life, because, clearly, it is a neighbor worth knowing. The bird calls to me in its beautiful voice, lures me outdoors, opens me to wonder. Whether it’s an early morning walk with other birding enthusiasts or an evening at home doing springtime yard work, when the days grow long I seldom step outdoors without anticipating the ruby-crown’s sweet song. And no matter how many time it is sang to me, I will always listen with grateful delight.

BILL SHERWONIT is a writer who lives in Anchorage.

Copyright Morris Communications Jul 2000

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