Birds come back late to the Interior

Posted: Thursday, May 02, 2002

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) -- There were more vehicles sitting in the parking lot at Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge Thursday during lunch hour than there were birds dining in the field.

More than a half dozen cars and trucks were parked in front of the wooden fence that separates the parking lot from the front viewing field that usually plays host to hundreds of Canada geese, sandhill cranes and assorted other waterfowl each spring.

The field was still frozen. Two-foot-high berms of snow, ice and frozen dirt lined the swaths that were plowed out of the snow weeks ago to clear the field for the first geese of the season. The two tons of barley that volunteers spread on the field earlier this month as a welcome-home snack for the geese was still there.

The place seemed naked.

There was only one bird in the field. A lone Canada goose stood in one of the plowed swaths about 50 yards from the fence, barely visible without a pair of binoculars. The bird looked lost in the frozen landscape. It wandered between the snow berms, alternately pecking at barley on the ground and stopping to survey its lonely surroundings.

A few minutes later, a second Canada goose flew over the field, circling and honking at its companion on the ground. Evidently, the need for companionship outweighed the free barley buffet because the goose on the ground promptly departed with the airborne newcomer.

What a difference a year makes.

Last year on April 25 there were 750 Canada geese at Creamer's Field. They were joined by almost 300 ducks of assorted species, as well as 36 white-fronted geese and 18 trumpeter swans.

Thanks to one of the coldest Aprils on record, Fairbanks is experiencing one of the latest spring migrations on record. Only a handful of geese have showed up at Creamer's Field so far this year and judging from the forecast, which called for 2 inches of snow Thursday night and more snow today, Mother Nature isn't exactly rolling out the welcome mat.

''I'd say this is a delayed spring,'' said John Wright, manager at Creamer's Field refuge.

While the birds have yet to arrive in any kind of numbers, the people who keep an eye out for them show up every day at Creamer's Field.

''At lunch there's always 15 cars parked out there and they're sitting there looking at nothing,'' said biologist Jason Caikoski.

On Thursday, Randy Lewis was one of those people. Lewis sat behind the wheel of his pickup truck eating his lunch and reading the newspaper.

''I've been here seven or eight times in the last couple of weeks,'' Lewis said. ''I'm one of the people who sits here with binoculars and looks at them when they're here.''

Lewis is confident the birds will show up. ''I think they just know when the time is right,'' he said.

The peak of the spring migration last year was on May 4, when 1,200 Canada geese and 155 sandhill cranes were counted at Creamer's Field, Caikoski said. The first sandhill crane didn't arrive until April 24. Judging from those numbers, Fairbanks should still see a fair number of birds this spring. It's a matter of how long they will hang around that is the question. If breakup occurs at the same time throughout the Interior, many birds may simply bypass Fairbanks for their breeding grounds because it's so late.

''Once things start warming up I expect our conditions aren't going to be much different than Minto Flats or Yukon Flats,'' Wright said, referring to a pair of popular breeding grounds for Interior waterfowl. ''They won't have a reason to be stuck here.''

Usually when birds are late arriving in Fairbanks they are holed up at Clearwater Lake in Delta Junction, waiting for water to open up in other places. That isn't the case this year, said biologist Steve DuBois at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Delta Junction.

Normally at this time of year there are thousands of birds on Clearwater Lake, but this year the most he's seen is a few hundred, DuBois said.

''I just don't think they're here yet,'' DuBois said. ''I don't see many of them passing through.''

But there is hope. Wright said a group of eight Canada geese showed up at Creamer's Field late Thursday afternoon and three sandhill cranes landed a short time later. A rough-legged hawk also flew over the refuge. ''Things are busting loose,'' Wright said with a laugh.

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