ALASKA. Potter Marsh is the place to go in Anchorage to watch birds

smPoterMarshNobody wants to think about it. The days are still warm; the sun still lingers well into the evening.

But the birds of Alaska already have winter on their minds, and if you stop and look carefully, there are signs of their retreat everywhere.

Migration time is nearly here. And one of the best places to view it is Potter Marsh.

"Certainly, activity is starting to wind down, although there are going to be birds there for a couple of months at least," Stan Senner, vice president and executive director of the National Audubon Society's Alaska state office, said of the birds that arrived at the marsh just two months ago.

Then, Potter Marsh was bustling with the arrival of migrant loons, waterfowl, shorebirds and geese. It's probably one of the most productive places to view birds in the Anchorage Bowl. In the spring, it attracts such species as the Pacific loon, red-necked grebe, greater scaup, canvasback, Barrow's goldeneye and arctic tern. Tundra and trumpeter swans can be seen during migration, as well as various raptors.

I'm not aware of anything particularly unusual out there this year," Senner said. "But there have been occasional reports of blue-winged teal (a type of duck), which is certainly an unusual bird for the area."

During the height of summer, the Potter Marsh birds begin their families, nesting and hatching their young. All too quickly, these young birds fledge and head south together.

Senner said now is a great time to see those bird families at the marsh. Wait another two weeks, and they too will be flying south.

"What we're seeing now is a lot of the birds with families or young are flying or are close to flying," Senner said. "We're already seeing southbound migrants coming through from farther north. Between now and the end of August, we're going to see the birds moving the most."

The first birds to be leaving the marsh, Senner said, are shorebirds that hang out along the mud flats. In fact, these entertaining birds have already started leaving.

"We usually say that the fall migration for shorebirds starts July 4," Senner said. "Those are usually the failed breeders or nonbreeders that went up north and are now coming through. They're giving up and heading south. More toward the beginning of August, we'll start seeing migrants that were successful (with their breeding)."

Other species to look for at Potter Marsh include horned grebes, northern waterthrush, rusty blackbirds, short-eared owl and northern harrier. According to the American Birding Association's "A Birder's Guide to Alaska," by George C. West, other species that can be spotted at the marsh include yellow warbler, which are fun to listen to; Lincoln's and golden-crowned sparrows; red-necked phalaropes; and red-winged blackbirds.

Potter marsh is a good place to see red-tailed hawks and rough-legged hawks too, Senner said, but it is still a bit early for those migrant raptors. More of them show up in August.

"And there's that bald eagle nest on the back side (of the marsh) that was visible," Senner said. "That was a good thing to look for."

Whatever your bird of choice, Potter Marsh may be the best place in Anchorage to look. As the days grow shorter, and the birds become impatient to get on their way, their movement becomes infectious.

It reminds us that there are not that many days left until a soft layer of snow will dust the Chugach range and a strong breeze will bring winter in on its heels.

By then, most of the birds will be gone, and a quiet winter landscape will blanket Potter Marsh.