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Photos: Spring birds flock back to Alaska

A pair of Snow Geese replenishing near the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, on their migration north. April 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Canadian Geese leave a field near the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, on their way north. April 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A pair of Canada Geese cross a barely frozen pond near the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. April 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Thousands of Canada Geese make their way north through southcentral Alaska. April 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Greater white-fronted geese rest in a field near the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. April 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Sandhill Cranes congregate in a Wasilla field, resting on their migration north. April 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Sandhill Cranes congregate in a Wasilla field, resting during their spring migration. April 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Sandhill Cranes congregate in a Wasilla field, resting on their migration north. April 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A Snow Goose walks through a Wasilla field, resting during its spring migration. April 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Loren Holmes,Mike Campbell

There's no turning back now.

As light April snow fluttered down Tuesday, Alaska's winged summer visitors flocked into Southcentral Alaska, apparently still believing that warmer days will arrive. Eventually.

Among the birds already on the scene were Canada geese, the most familiar goose in Alaska and in all of North America, as well as larger snow geese, greater white-fronted geese and Sandhill cranes.  

Lesser snow geese are distinctive -- totally white except for a touch of black on their wing tips, pink legs and a pink bill. Most of the snow geese seen in Southcentral Alaska are pausing to feed and rest enroute to their feeding or breeding grounds farther north. A huge population of more than 300,000 snow geese eventually gathers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in September.  During their spring Southcentral stopover, a favored spot of snow geese is the mouth of Kenai River, south of Alaska’s largest city.

The majestic sandhill cranes, Alaska's largest game bird, feature a distinctive red patch on their heads. They use two migration routes to Alaska. The Pacific Flyway population nests in Upper Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula and numbers an estimated 25,000 birds. But the Mid-Continent population is perhaps most visible to Alaskans because the birds nest over a broad swath of the state, with some cranes stopping at the popular Creamer’s Field in Fairbanks during spring and fall migrations.  All together, more than 200,000 sandhill cranes pass through Alaska.

Cranes mate for life and biologists say they can survive 20 years in the wild. In flight, they are stately and dignified, forming great flocks, with their honking audible for miles. But some find the cranes’ mating dance on the tundra comical. The ritual starts with a deep bow followed by great leaps, hops, skips, turns, and more bows. This dance can go on for many minutes.

Greater white-fronted geese are distinguishable from other dark geese in Alaska by their pink bills, orange legs and three-note laughing call. They were officially named for their white faces, acquired in their first winter, although they are commonly called "specklebellies" for the irregular black bars and spots on the breasts of adults. Their population declined from 400,000 to 100,000 birds during the 1970s but has since rebounded under restrictive hunting rules.

Here are some Southcentral Alaska birding organizations you may want to hook up with this spring:

• Mat-Su Birders: http://www.matsubirders.org/

• Alaska WildBird Rehabilitation Center: http://www.akwildbirdrehab.org/Links.html

• Alaskans for Palmer Hay Flats: http://PalmerHayFlats.org/

• Anchorage Audubon Society, http://www.anchorageaudubon.org/

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com and Loren Holmes at loren(at)alaskadispatch.com