A Song for July 28

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If you tell someone in southern Sweden you are going north to climb Kebenekaise, most likely you will learn that they have done it. When you get to Kebnekaise Field Station, above treeline but 3000 feet below the summit, everybody has just done it or is about to. I made no pretension of spending all day on a forced march, but some of my comrades signed up for a guided ascent. Some bagged it after an hour, the others were told they were too slow and guided to an alternative summit, then led home. Age is not an excuse, older folks made it up and back. We have no ill feelings about the failure to top out; the food at the field station was outstanding and the views were spectacular.

On the second day, Richard, Ed, and I hiked cross-country up the steep slope right behind the station, to see what we could see, and to get as high as we could get. It was slow going, fighting gravity and the tangle of knee-high shrubs. I flushed a Willow Grouse at one point, but other than ravens that was the only bird I saw. Above the willows were endless piles of boulders bedecked with multi-colored lichens, surrounding little islands of luxuriant turf dotted with beautiful alpine wildflowers. Richard saw a Snowy Owl sitting on a rock, off in the distance. We advanced stealthily on it. It did not move. Finally, with binoculars we could tell it was not a bird. When we got to it, we found an owl-sized rock of purest white, a great trail marker. There were others, not so owlish, stretching off into the distance across the fell-field. Later, I did find a white feather with a few black marks on it, certainly left by a Snowy Owl, so our hypothesis had been plausible, if not correct.

It was about that time that I heard a keer overhead. I got the recorder going and swung the dish, which I had lugged all this way for such an opportunity, toward the Rough-legged Buzzard (Hawk) high above us. It's a flawed recording, but special nonetheless, because this is the "most Arctic" bird I saw on the whole trip. The species nests on the treeless tundra at the top of the world. Old and New Worlds are no different for it, as is the case with many Arctic species. But it winters in the open country of the temperate zone, and many birders are familiar with it. I saw a number of them in winter when I lived in Colorado, for instance.

The Macaulay Library has a surprisingly small number of recordings of this species, only 27 before I added mine, but many are louder and clearer than the one above. But they have no recordings of begging fleglings, so I happily add to the collection the one I made near the field station before we began this hike. It's below. The bird was over the lip of a cliff, so the signal is not strong, but there is no mistaking it for anything else in this area. Besides, an adult flew in, circled, and left. Perhaps the youngster was still in the nest, which I couldn't see from below. Regardless, it did not get fed this time. The similarity of the youngster's wails to those of the Red-tailed Hawk is obvious. I guess a hungry hawk sounds like a hungry hawk, wherever it is.

The sound below occurred 45 seconds after the end of the cut above. I think it was made by the adult I saw, as it flew away.

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Nathan D. Pieplow. 2017. Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Eastern North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Nathan D. Pieplow. 2019. Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Donald Kroodsma. 2005. The Singing Life of Birds. Houghton Mifflin.