Bluethroats: A Refuge Visitor's Story

[Written and illustrated by Refuge visitor Frank J. Keim.]

June 26-- It's misty and cold out this morning, and my wife Jen and I are inside our tent chatting about one of the most unusual birding experiences in our lives. For the past twelve days, we have been watching a Bluethroat nest.

The Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) is a member of the thrush family. It nests in northwest and arctic Alaska almost as far east as the Canadian border. The Bluethroat is one of Alaska's most beautiful birds and is unique in that it has the most varied song repertoire of any bird in the state except for the Raven.

Thirteen days ago, when we first arrived here in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I had heard a male bird singing at about 10:00 p.m., continuing well into the morning as the sun wheeled across the polar sky. I didn't know at the time that it was a Bluethroat because I was not familiar with that bird's song. Furthermore, even with the midnight sun sparkling in the Arctic sky, I couldn't find the bird. Much as I tried, his voice shifted like a phantom in the low willows and seemed to be an example of avian ventriloquism.

It wasn't until the next morning when Jen and her friend Cindy pointed to a little bird acting like it might have a nest nearby that I suspected the bird's identity. Just before it scuttled under a willow and through a grassy veil to its nest I spotted the tell-tale necklace on the female. I checked my field guide. Of course, I exclaimed to the women, these must be Bluethroats. I was elated because, although I had seen a female Bluethroat once before on a previous visit to the Refuge, I had not found the nest or even heard the male. Now here was a nest with eight creamy green eggs in it almost at our doorstep, and a male singing his spring song.

But where was the source of all that wonderful bird song we had listened to the previous "night," I wondered. As the female sat in her nest, the male must have been hiding somewhere. Not a peep did we hear from him again until late that evening when we began hearing what sounded like a loud cricket on a hot night in Kansas. When the song changed to the melodious warble of a Robin, I truly questioned what I was listening to. But in an instant it went back to its cricket chirp, then to a high variable liquid twitter, back to the chirp, then to a high squeaky whistle. It repeated these notes in different combinations, adding new ones like trills, buzzes, bell-like sounds and a sharp dry chak. I had never heard anything like it. Again, however, when I tried to find him, no luck.

The next morning when I glassed the nest the female was faithfully incubating the eggs, but her mate was nowhere to be found. By then I was sure the bird with the lovely midnight song was her mate because there were just too few other birds around to confuse it with. I was familiar with the simpler calls of Smith's Longspurs and Redpolls, as well as White-crowned and Savannah Sparrows. And a Wheatear would be much less melodious in its song.

Even five days later, after we returned from a long trek through the mountains, the female seemed to be left alone during the day. The male warbled and chirped and twittered at "night," from a distance, but he never ventured near the nest.

Early June 21, when we awakened to two inches of snow blanketing the ground, I immediately wondered what was happening at the nest. I tiptoed across the soft snow and peeked carefully through the grass entrance. Nobody was home. Two tiny bird tracks on the snowy rim of the nest told me the female was away, probably feeding. I left quickly, thinking she would soon be back to tend to the incubation of her eggs, which at the time must have been near hatching. But when she hadn't shown up by late afternoon, we all began to worry that she might have abandoned ship. With so long an absence in cold weather, we didn't think the young inside the eggs had much chance of surviving.

But we were wrong on both counts. The female did come back in the early evening, settling down again, head and tail in the air, to her duty of trying to keep her eight eggs warm in some very cool weather. And five days later, after returning from another trek, we found three newly hatched chicks in the nest.

bluethroat by Frank KeimNot only that, the loquacious male was now in the immediate neighborhood, flitting from nearby willow to willow, stopping for a moment on each one to sing his operetta of song. Like a miniature Robin, he swelled his brilliant blue and orange throat and chest, and chirped and whistled and warbled his heart out. The only other bird I had ever heard sing such a continuous melodious combination of different notes was the Mockingbird, and that was far, far from arctic Alaska. Jen and Cindy and I felt privileged to be able to both see and hear this rare northern bird. And there was more to come.

Over the next three days we watched the pair of Bluethroats interact around the nest. Every day another egg hatched and the female was increasingly busy trying to fill the gaping mouths of the chicks with minced caterpillars, beetles and other insects and their larvae. Each time she would make a food foray away from the nest, the male would chase after her, shadowing her every movement. He stood guard as she stabbed her prey and stored them in her mouth, then when she raced back to the nest he raced back with her. He stopped abruptly, though, about two feet from the nest, sometimes landing on the ground and curiously cocking his head as though wondering what was going on in there.

The male Bluethroat repeated this behavior through the remainder of our stay in the Refuge, alternately bouncing and singing from willow to willow, and chasing the female back and forth in her search of food for her steadily growing family. Each day, however, he scuttled closer and closer to the scene of the action under the veil of grass. It was as though he was just aching to be more intimately involved in what was going on there.

Even by the time we left our now wildflower-carpeted mountain paradise, we never did see the male Bluethroat venture nearer than six inches from the mouth of the nest. But with a little imagination we surmised that, as their family became larger and all eight little mouths gaped wider and wider, he would have figured out what his role was and begun to fly off in his own direction in search of tasty insect morsels to insure that there would always be Bluethroats to return to the Arctic Refuge.