The seasons fly by

On an Alaskan hiking trail, the appearance of different birds signal summer's end and winter's approach.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/File
I spy: It's easier to spot birds once trees have dropped their leaves.

Watching for birds on an October hike through local woodlands, I glimpsed both a reminder of summer and a harbinger of winter.

The reminder: an American tree sparrow. Startled by my leaf-crunching footsteps, the sparrow rose from Anchorage's Turnagain Arm Trail and shot into a thick stand of alders. Even 10 days ago, the bird would have vanished quickly from sight. But now that the alders had dropped their green, brittle leaves, I was able to see deep into the thicket.

Perched on a branch inside the tangled branches, the bird sat motionless to avoid detection. At first I guessed it to be a pine siskin or common redpoll, two small, sparrowlike finches that inhabit this birch, spruce, and cottonwood forest in growing numbers as fall fades into winter. Lifting binoculars to my eyes, I discovered my error. I saw the tree sparrow's rusty crown, gray head, and gray breast with its signature dark spot.

Siskins and redpolls are among my favorite songbirds. But on this day, I was happily surprised, instead, to share the trail with a sparrow. Most sparrows are headed south by mid- to late September. I hike this trail regularly and keep eyes and ears alert to birds and their calls, but I hadn't noticed a sparrow in weeks.

Just a few minutes before seeing the tree sparrow, I'd been granted another rare October sighting: four pine grosbeaks – the harbingers of winter. Feeding on high-bush cranberries, the grosbeaks flushed higher into the forest canopy on my approach, making them easy to view.

Like siskins and redpolls, grosbeaks are finches. But they're considerably larger birds. Upon seeing one in silhouette, I initially assumed the bird to be a robin. Robins, like sparrows, are migratory songbirds. But they stay here later into autumn, and I'd periodically spotted some along this trail throughout the fall; so it didn't seem unusual to meet a few.

Then, again, binoculars clarified my vision. Mostly gray, with a thick, stubby bill and a yellowish-orange head, the bird was clearly a female pine grosbeak. Two of her companions also were females. The fourth was a male, brightly dressed in red plumage, except for some gray around the underbelly. One female sang softly, in a sweet, soothing whistle.

Grosbeaks usually appear at my feeders after the first snows, sometimes in November but sometimes not until December. They stick around until March or April, then simply disappear. Yet local birding experts assure me that grosbeaks remain in Anchorage-area forests throughout spring and summer. Because they disperse and occur in very low numbers, they're rarely observed. In early winter, the birds regroup into flocks.

Grosbeaks aren't especially common along this forest path, even in winter, although I do see them occasionally. This may have been the earliest I've ever encountered them while hiking Turnagain Arm Trail. They warranted a special note in my journal, along with the sparrow.

One of the reasons I come here regularly is to observe how this wooded landscape changes throughout the year; to note, with as many senses as possible, the manner in which the forest and its inhabitants shift and adapt to seasonal or even daily variations in light and weather. What's present; what's not? What's different? And what am I missing?

Along this trail, as in my neighborhood, I continue learning about the local landscape and its plant and animal community. There are times, as in deepest winter, when little seems to change for days, or even weeks. On other days, I seem to fast forward and flash back from one season to another within a few minutes' time.

The best part is that I never know what might surprise, delight, or mystify me. It may be the late-autumn flowering of a wild rose blossom, a spider crawling across the March snowpack, or the sudden appearance of both sparrow and grosbeak on an otherwise ordinary October day.

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