Barn swallows firmly attach their nests to walls, so they support the weight of nestlings and visiting adults.  (Photo by Bob Amrstrong)

On the Trails: Spring to summer

Spring temperatures were cool this year, but the lengthening days gave birds the signals they needed to start the baby business.

By mid-May, a few broods of fuzzy little mallards trailed after their mamas; now, in early June, some of those little ones are already getting real feathers. By now, some male mallards are already losing their fancy breeding dress, while a few stay elegant and tend to any late-arriving females.

In early June, we could also hear raucous young crows and ravens hollering at their parents for more food. Robins carry juicy prey to their kids, hidden away in the trees. At Kingfisher Pond, the red-wings have big fledglings. On my home pond, junco families appeared, one set still with streaky-brown chests, still being fed by mom and dad, and the other set already losing the streaks and getting their gray heads. The young ‘uns readily learned to use the peanut-butter feeders.

To the consternation of serious gardeners, the roadside dandelions are producing battalions of floating seeds. They decorated the roadside with glorious yellow flowers for a few weeks, but now it is time to disperse those young ones. Dandelions known as “ruderals”: they are very successful invaders of disturbed soils. Not only can they send myriad seeds out onto the winds, they can produce seeds without a pollinator, sometimes by self-pollination, often without any pollen at all; in any case, the inflorescence often closes in the rain, when pollinating insects would be scarce. A highly successful set of adaptations. They apparently originated in Eurasia and were brought to North America by some early ships bringing human immigrants as well.

On a recent walk, some friends and I enjoyed watching some pine siskins add something to the dandelion story. A siskin landed on an upright stem that bore a fluffy seedhead, packed with ripe seeds ready to disperse. It sidled toward the top of the stem and rode the now-drooping stem down until it stabilized. I thought it was interested in the ripe seeds. But no. The bird stopped partway along the stem and reached out to an immature seedhead, with its bracts closed up over the faded flowers, so it showed just a bit of yellow at the top of the closed bracts. And there it fed, but I couldn’t see the details. The other bird found a similar immature seedhead, peeled back the bracts to expose the seeds, which were still green and soft but already fat, making a good lunch. Those birds knew where to look.

On the spruce trees, the new shoots shed their papery brown caps and the bright green young growth brightened up the dark conifers (dare I say that it “spruced them up?”). Out on the dike trail a friend and I watched pine siskins poking about in spruce needles, and a closer look revealed little brownish larvae tucked down at the bases of new needles — presumably spruce budworms. Hundreds of young spruce tips littered the trail, possibly the result of avian foraging?

Tree swallows have claimed some Audubon Society’s nest boxes, scattered at various locations around town. Sometimes the swallows have to contend with chickadees for ownership (both species also use tree cavities). Barn swallows have moved into the pavilion at the visitor center, wedging their nests into corners of the ceiling. There are fewer of them than usual, but nests show some fresh mud and fluffy feathers of nest linings. Fork-tailed adults sweep through the air overhead, their orange underparts visible.

Those two species may be the easiest ones to see here in the nesting season. But there are three or maybe four more species to be seen if you are in the right place at the right time. A richness of swallows! I usually see violet-green swallows in spring and fall, when their flocks circle over the waters; they are readily distinguished by their white flank patches. They nest up-slope in cavities in trees, cliffs, and cut-banks, often colonially. Cliff swallows are often colonial too, sticking their mud nests to cliffs and the sides of buildings. Adults usually have a white mark on the forehead and buffy feathers on the rump.

Two other species, bank swallows and northern rough-winged swallows, nest in burrows in mud banks, often along streams, a habitat seen only in a few places here. Less colorful than the other species, they can be distinguished from each other by the dark breast band and clear white underparts of bank swallows (lacked by the northern rough-winged swallow). Rough-wings are at the northern edge of their geographic range here and may be only occasional. Bank swallows are often colonial and build their own burrows, but rough-wings are seldom colonial and may often modify pre-existing burrows.

These swallows feed chiefly on aerially-caught insects. Of all these swallow species, only the barn swallow appears to have declined radically since about 1970. But data for the other species are poor, in part because colony locations often change from year to year, and distributions are patchy, making it difficult to keep track of number. Lots more data are needed.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On The Trails” appears every Wednesday in the Juneau Empire.

Pine siskins eat seeds and insect larvae. (Photo by Bob Amrstrong)

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