Posts Tagged ‘Birding’
The “trip,” at least at WC’s house, is spring migration, when a hundred species of birds travel truly extraordinary distances to come to Alaska. They have just one reason: to reproduce. To breed. To pass the genes along.
WC was able to document the first step in that process for the elegant, lovely and, above all, mosquito-gorging Tree Swallow down at Potter Marsh.
The male is flying to the female, who is presenting for copulation.
Swallows, like most birds, don’t have specialized genitalia, instead using the cloaca as a kind of multipurpose tool for copulation. The ornithological phrase is “the cloacal kiss.”
After copulation, the business of nest building get under way or, in this case, the business of lining a nest box or tree cavity resumes. A few days later, the first egg will be laid and incubation beings. 11-20 days later, the first eggs will hatch and the next generation will be born.
Swallows time their activities so that they are feeding the chicks and fledglings when prey – mostly flying insects – are at their peak. A pair of swallows, feeding a clutch of 5-7 chicks, can capture an amazing number of mosquitoes. Which is yet another reason to love birds.
The problem faced by all sea birds, including sea ducks, is that they have to come ashore to breed. The places they come ashore vary wildly, though.
Harlequin Ducks fly to mountain clear water streams and lakes; they are fairly common along the east end of the Denali Highway, for example. It’s a remarkable distance from where they spend most of their lives: in the bays and on the shores of the North Pacific Ocean.
Long-tailed Ducks, formerly known as Oldsquaw, fly a similar distance, except thst the nest along alpine lakes and not streams.
The female, in comparison to the male, is a bit drabber.
The spectacular King Eider is less ambitious in its choice of breeding habitats. They nest in the tundra along the coastal zones of northern Canada and Alaska.
In each species, the male is spectacularly colored; the females are all cryptic, blending into the habitat. The female, after all, sits on eggs, exposed to predators; the male, to the extent they hang around at all after the eggs are laid, serves as a distraction for predators. In comparison to the male, the female King Eider is almost drab.
As the varying bill shapes suggest, each species is adapted to a slightly different prey. But bills will have to be the subject of another post.
Thanks again to the Seward’s Alaska Sealife Center for letting WC snap these shots in the Seabird Aviary. Remember these are all captive birds; these kinds of shots are nearly impossible in the wild.
WC had a chance to do some bird portraits at the Seward Sealife Center the other day. They aren’t purist nature photographs, but the Center does offer a nearly unique ability to take close-up photographs for birds that are nearly impossible to approach in the field.
The Tufted Puffin is one of two Pacific puffin species and in breeding plumage are really remarkable. While puffins are awkward on land and resemble a flying football on the wing, they are elegant swimmers and divers.
The closely related cousin to the Tufted Puffin is the Horned Puffin.
The Horned Puffin is a close relative to the Atlantic Puffin, but is much more poorly studied. The remote habitats and difficult nesting sites make this species a bit of a mystery.
The Rhinoceros Auklet nests in colonies and returns to the colony at night, heading out to forage again at dawn. Scientists speculate that the night-time return is to avoid attacks by gulls and raptors when returning with food.
Alcids, and especially Auks, are the closest thing the Northern Hemisphere has to penguins. Perhaps in another few hundred thousand years alcids, like penguins, will have lost the power of flight. Assuming, of course, we haven’t extirpated them by then.
The Sealife Center is a remarkable facility; it may not be completely cost-effective in the sense of paying its way, but there are facilities that are important enough, and spectacular enough, to deserve whatever subsidy may be reasonably required to keep and maintain them. WC thanks the folks there for letting him snap these photos.
Long-tailed Jaegers are the smallest of the three North American Jaeger species. In flight they are buoyant, like an Arctic Tern. They spend most of their lives far at sea, but come ashore to breed in dry tundra zones, including the southern slopes of the Alaska Range. They can usually be seen along the east end of the Denali Highway.
This fellow had a prize he’d caught and was reluctant to abandon. That made him more approachable than this species usually is. Although he did complain to WC a bit.
But eventually he showed WC the reason he was hanging around despite the scary bird photographer with his clicking camera.
That’s probably a Tundra Vole. Like most of the small rodents, they have a cyclical population, moving between periods when they are very scarce and periods when the alpine tundra is crawling with them. Jaegers time their breeding to that population cycle. When there aren’t many vole and other microtines around, they’ll simply not breed. It’s an interesting adaptation to a cyclical prey population.
WC is grateful to this handsome devil for allowing himself to be photographed while eating his lunch.
Okay, it’s not a chicken. It’s a Rock Ptarmigan.
Okay, it’s not bling. Bling, WC understands, is something you choose to wear. This Rock Ptarmigan is wearing a radio collar, allowing his movements to be tracked. He has been netted and radiocollared, despite his no doubt strenuous objections.
Despite (or because) of the bling, he had a date, who didn’t seem to be bothered by the involuntary accoutrements.
WC’s compliments to the biologist performing the study. It’s no easy trick collaring a Rock Ptarmigran.
Peeps are the small Sandpipers, including Western, Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers. The latter two moved through Fairbanks in spring migration, on their way to the western and northern tundra to breed. Western Sandpipers are uncommon in the Interior. Their migration route trends more along the southcentral Alaska coast.
Pipes is WC’s inelegant term for the mid-size sandpipers and plovers, including Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plover and their allies.
The tiny Least Sandpiper is easy to identify in the field: if it is a sandpiper, tiny and has yellowish legs, in these parts it is a Least Sandpiper.
For comparison, here’s it’s dark-legged cousin, the Semipalmated Sandpiper.
The leg color is pretty definitive, although the Least’s legs can sometimes be muddy and the color difficult to see. Other field marks are less certain. The Least’s bill is generally shorter and thinner but, when covered in mud and sand, as here, the field mark is uncertain.
Pipes can be tricky, but in almost every case there are visual cues to tell them apart. Here’s a view of a Stilt Sandpiper, not a common bird in Interior Alaska.
Note the strong white “eyebrow” (technically, a supercilium) and note, too that the pattern on the chest comes all the way down to the legs. The legs are yellow-green and the long bill is slightly down-curved.
Compare the Stilt above with the Pectoral Sandpipers below.
You can see that there is a shorter bill, and the patterning on the chest ends abruptly, leaving a plain white belly. The white supercilium is fainter and the legs are more yellow than green. This particular photo shows that the territorial instincts can cut in even when the territory is still solid ice.
And then there are the pipes that are dead easy. Like this handsome Black-bellied Plover.
It’s is the only North American sandpiper with an all-white head and, in breeding plumage, the solid black belly is unmistakeable.
All these photos are from Tanana Lakes, formerly known as the South Cushman Ponds. You have to compete with mud boggers in oversize pickups, trigger-happy gun nuts and appalling amounts of trash. But if you can get past that, the birding can be pretty good, at least in spring migration.
While the gulls arrived some days ago, the shorebirds have arrived more recently. And there’s a problem. Their habitat is still frozen. It’s been interesting to see how the birds coped – or failed to cope – with the adverse conditions.
Bonaparte’s Gulls, the black-headed gull of Interior Alaska, are surface feeders, bobbing on the surface of the water and delicately dabbing at emerging insects. But there’s a problem. Ponds are still frozen. This Bonaparte’s coped with the problem this way:
If you look carefully, you can see that he has punched a series of holes in the ice, using his feet and his bill, to get at prey under the ice. You can see the series of four fishing holes behind him. It helped that the ice was only a quarter inch thick or so. An interesting and apparently successful strategy.
Long-billed Dowitchers under ordinary conditions look a bit like sewing machines, their heads rapidly going up and down, probing with their long bills in the soft mud of the shore for prey. The problem for the Dowitchers is that ground is still frozen about half an inch down. This fellow coped with the challenge by adopting a strategy used by sandpipers: pond scum sucking.
Readers may recall that pond scum is surprisingly nutritious. It’s a primary food source for Sandpipers. The much larger Dowitcher can apparently make do with the alternate food, too. Actually, Dowitchers are much too handsome to make do with this rather plain view. Here’s a better shot of one of Alaska’s prettiest shorebirds.
The Whimbrel, a slightly larger shorebird with an even longer, more specialized bill, probes even deeper into the shoreline mud than the Dowitcher. Whether because its bill won’t let it, or because there isn’t enough energy to make it worthwhile, the Wimbrels weren’t sucking scum. Most, as this fellow, were wandering somewhat disconsolately across the solid ice, probing occasionally, and somewhat half-heartedly, at stuff blown out onto the surface.
The Whimbrels were being surprisingly territorial over their chosen ice areas, so perhaps there was some kind of food out there. But it can’t have been their usual diet.
WC has no idea whether the late spring will affect shorebird survival, reproduction success or populations. We may not know for a couple of years. It’s not like we get any of these species on Christmas Bird Counts. But it’s unlikely to be good news.
(All photos May 19 and 20, 2013)
WC offers a guest blog today, full of Bird Nerd jokes and sarcasm from The Birdist. Used with permission (thanks, Nick Lund).
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I drove over a bridge from Maryland into Virginia today and on the big “Welcome to Virginia” sign was an image of their state bird, the Northern Cardinal – with a yellow bill. I should have scoffed – another Birds at Large on tap! – but it hardly registered. Everyone knows that state birds are a big damn joke. There are a million Cardinals, a scattering a Robins, and just a general lack of thought being put into the whole thing.
States should have to put more thought into their state bird than I put into picking my socks in the morning. “Ugh, state bird? I dunno, what’re the guys next to us doing? Cardinal? OK, let’s do that too. Yeah put it on all the signs. Nah no time to research the bill color let’s just go.” It’s the official state bird! Well, since all these jackanape states are too busy passing laws requiring everyone to own guns or whatever to consider what their state bird should be, I guess I’ll have to do it.
1. Alabama. Official state bird: Yellowhammer.
Right out of the gate with this thing. Yellowhammer? C’mon. I Asked Jeeves and it told me that Yellowhammer is some backwoods name for a Yellow-shafted Flicker. Sorry, but that’s dumb. If you want a woodpecker, go for something with a little more cache, something that’s at least a full species.
What it should be: Red-cockaded Woodpecker
2. Alaska. Official state bird: Willow Ptarmigan
Willow Ptarmigans are the dumbest sounding birds on earth, sorry. They sound like rejected Star Wars aliens, angrily standing outside the Mos Eisley cantina because their ID’s were rejected. Why go with these dopes, Alaska, when you’re the best state to see the most awesome falcon on earth?
What it should be: Gyrfalcon
3. Arizona. Official state bird: Cactus Wren
Cactus Wren is like the only boring bird in the entire state. I can’t believe it.
What it should be: Red-faced Warbler
4. Arkansas. Official state bird: Northern Mockingbird
Christ. What makes this even less funny is that there are like 8 other states with Mockingbird as their official bird. I’m convinced that the guy whose job it was to report to the state’s legislature on what the official bird should be forgot until the day it was due and he was in line for a breakfast sandwich at Burger King. In a panic he walked outside and selected the first bird he could find, a dirty Mockingbird singing its stupid head off on top of a dumpster.
What it should be: Painted Bunting
5. California. Official state bird: California Quail
…Or the largest most radical bird on the continent?
What it should be: California Condor
6. Colorado. Official state bird: Lark Bunting
I’m actually OK with this. A nice choice. But why not go with the only bird that is (or is pretty much) endemic in your state?
What it should be: Brown-capped Rosy-finch or Gunnison Sage-grouse
7. Connecticut. Official state bird: American Robin
Look, this isn’t even that hard. American Robin is American, not special to Connecticut at all. Is there perhaps another choice? One that inspires some more local pride?
What it should be: Connecticut Warbler
8. Delaware. Official state bird: Blue Hen chicken
You know what? I’m not so mad about this. Whatever, it seems to have some connection to you, even though “blue chicken” plugged into a thesaurus means “sad wuss.”
What it should be: Red Knot
9. Florida. Official state bird: Northern Mockingbird
I am finishing this post the next day because I had to go buy a new computer after I threw my last one out the window when I read that Florida’s state bird was the Northern Mockingbird. I cannot think of a lamer choice. What’s their state beverage, A Half Glass of Warm Tapwater?
What it should be: American Flamingo
10. Georgia. Official state bird: Brown Thrasher
I’ve always liked this. Way to go, Georgia.
What it should be: Brown Thrasher
11. Hawaii. Official state bird: Nene
What it should be: Nene (the goose)
12. Idaho. Official state bird: Mountain Bluebird
What it should be: Mountain Bluebird
13. Illinois. Official state bird: Northern Cardinal
You know how parents say that thing, “if everybody can’t have it, then NOBODY can have it”? Well, I’m doing that for cardinal. No one gets the cardinal. Screw cardinals.
What it should be: Greater Prairie-chicken
14. Indiana. Official state bird: Northern Cardinal
What it should be: Bobolink
15. Iowa. Official state bird: Eastern Goldfinch
Eastern Goldfinch? That’s not even a thing.
What it should be: Dickcissel
16. Kansas. Official state bird: Western Meadowlark
OK, but I’m only allowing one.
What it should be: Western Meadowlark
17. Kentucky. Official state bird: Northern Cardinal
[urge to kill: rising]
What it should be: Kentucky Warbler
18. Louisiana. Official state bird: Brown Pelican
Yes. The best fit of all. If I had beads I’d throw them to you, Louisiana. Note: I could go Louisiana Waterthrush here, but no one thinks of Louisiana when they think of Louisiana Waterthrush, so, whatever.
What it should be: Brown Pelican
19. Maine. Official state bird: Black-capped Chickadee
Ah, my beloved home state. I couldn’t imagine it any other bird.
What it should be: Black-capped Chickadee
20. Maryland. Official state bird: Baltimore Oriole
What it should be: Baltimore Oriole
21. Massachusetts. Official state bird: Black-capped Chickadee
Screw you, Taxachusetts. Maine wins.
What it should be: Piping Plover
22. Michigan. Official state bird: American Robin
The most endangered bird in the nation lives ONLY (pretty much) in your state! Don’t you want tourists and pride and crap? Uggghhhh.
What it should be: Kirtland’s Warbler
23. Minnesota. Official state bird: Common Loon
Alright that works.
What it should be: Common Loon.
24. Mississippi. Official state bird: Northern Mockingbird
Oh for God’s sake. There’s an awesome bird named after you! NAMED AFTER YOU!
What it should be: Mississippi Kite
25. Missouri. Official state bird: Eastern Bluebird
Lame, but I don’t know what else would be better.
What it should be: Eastern Bluebird
26. Montana. Official state bird: Western Meadowlark
What it should be: McCown’s Longspur
27. Nebraska. Official state bird: Western Meadowlark
What it should be: Sandhill Crane
28. Nevada. Official state bird: Mountain Bluebird
Look, Nevada, you’re insane. You should have a bird that also represents what a zany, mixed-up world this is.
What it should be: Himalayan Snowcock
29. New Hampshire. Official state bird: Purple Finch
OK just go with it.
What it should be: Purple Finch
30. New Jersey. Official state bird: Eastern Goldfinch
Are you serious? Another outdated name? Come on, Jersey. You’ve got a fine birding reputation, and you’re better than this.
What it should be: Seaside Sparrow
31. New Mexico. Official state bird: Greater Roadrunner
What it should be: Greater Roadrunner
32. New York. Official state bird: Eastern Bluebird
What it should be: Cerulean Warbler
33. North Carolina. Official state bird: Northern Cardinal
More like Bore-thern Cardinal.
What it should be: Carolina Chickadee
34. North Dakota. Official state bird: Western Meadowlark
Was Western Meadowlark the official state bird of the entire Louisiana Purchase and they just kept if after becoming states?
What it should be: Chestnut-collared Longspur
35. Ohio. Official state bird: Northern Cardinal
Uuggghhhhhhh the wooorrrssssttt
What it should be: Indigo Bunting
36. Oklahoma. Official state bird: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Hell yeah! Nailed it!
What it should be: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
37. Oregon. Official state bird: Western Meadowlark
STOP IT WITH THE MEADOWLARKS. I’m resisting the temptation for Oregon Junco here, in favor of something that would never happen.
What it should be: Northern Spotted Owl.
38. Pennsylvania. Official state bird: Ruffed Grouse
I like it.
What it should be: Ruffed Grouse
39. Rhode Island. Official state bird: Rhode Island Red Chicken
Hahaha Rhode Island you so crazy
What it should be: Bee Hummingbird haha j/k! Rhode Island Red Chicken
40. South Carolina. Official state bird: Carolina Wren
Okay. Thank you.
What it should be: Carolina Wren
41. South Dakota. Official state bird: Ring-necked Pheasant
An exotic. You’re kidding me. Is your state meal General Tso’s chicken? Is your state hat the sombrero? Is your state anthem the DAMN CANADIAN NATIONAL ANTHEM?
What it should be: Sharp-tailed Grouse
42. Tennessee. Official state bird: Northern Mockingbird
What is it with Mockingbirds? I DO NOT understand. They are garbage birds that eat dumpster trash! Is that what you want to identify with, Tennessee?
What it should be: Tennessee Warbler
43. Texas. Official state bird: Northern Mockingbird
Sometimes – after a nice full day, perhaps spent in the company of loved ones – one can forget that the world is a cold, uncaring place full of death and sadness. Thanks, Texas, the birdiest state in the entire country, for reminding me that this civilization we’ve built and work our fingers to the bone trying to perfect is as meaningless as a sand castle in the tide.
What it should be: any other fucking bird in the country other than Northern Mockingbird. Roseate Spoonbill? Golden-cheeked Warbler? Swainson’s Hawk? Aplomado Falcon? Anything.
44. Utah. Official state bird: California Gull
You named your official state bird after a bird named for a DIFFERENT state? That is the most pathetic thing I have ever heard.
What it should be: Burrowing Owl
45. Vermont. Official state bird: Hermit Thrush
Fine. Thank you for restoring sanity, Vermont.
What it should be. Hermit Thrush
46. Virginia. Official state bird: Northern Cardinal
Just when I think I’m out they suck me right back in. Shut up, Virginia.
What it should be: Barred Owl
47. Washington. Official state bird: Willow Goldfinch
What is going onnnnnnnn???? Nobody can get the damn goldfinch right!
What it should be: Glaucous-winged Gull
48. West Virginia. Official state bird: Northern Cardinal
West Virginia I am so mad at your right now I could explode.
What it should be: Swainson’s Warbler
49. Wisconsin. Official state bird: American Robin
I’m too tired to be mad.
What it should be: Golden-winged Warbler
50. Wyoming. Official state bird: Western Meadowlark
I hate you.
What it should be: Greater Sage-grouse
Final Thoughts: This has been the most depressing post I have ever put together. Three robins but no Blue Jay? Seven cardinals but no owls or hawks? Five goddamn mockingbirds? This is what we pay taxes for, folks.
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The migratory songbirds, the Passerines, have arrived. And they are dying by the thousands, a victim of Interior Alaska’s non-spring. If you’re a birder, it’s a real bummer.
If you are like WC, you have complained about the weather. Snow – a blizzard, really – on Friday night. And Saturday afternoon it might have been 30 degrees. But if you are a songbird, it’s a lot more than depressing. It’s death.
Imagine being a Hammond’s Flycatcher, an early-arriving, bug-eating bird.
But because of the late spring, there are no bugs. It’s tough times for flycatchers. WC saw 20 or more grubbing for food along a neighborhood road.
Why should you care? Even if you don’t care very much about birds, WC doubts you are fond of mosquitoes. Fewer fly catching bugs means more mosquitoes. And mosquitoes around longer. This weekend’s blizzard and our glacial spring will have consequences all summer and, depending upon how badly reproduction is impaired, perhaps for more than one summer.
The birds who are generalists are doing better. Thrushes, the family of birds that includes the American Robin, are omnivores.
A Swainson’s Thrush can eat last fall’s berries and rose hips, seeds and even spring buds, as well as do some clumsy fly catching. Despite its generalist strategy, Swainson’s Thrushes seem to be in decline throughout the boreal forest, including Alaska. Birds of North America (pay wall) reports, “Swainson’s Thrush populations declined in North America at a small annual rate (0.8%/yr) during 1980–1996. In some regions, trends for last 17 yr have reversed from increases in earlier decades.” It may be caused by habitat loss in the migration corridor.
As WC writes this post, there are reports from across the Interior of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of dead migratory songbirds. Swallows, another insect-eating family of birds, and sparrows, that rely upon snow-free ground to forage for food, seem to be especially hard hit.
So as we whine about the late spring, and being short-sheeted on summer, have a thought for our feathered friends.
Shot by Mrs. WC, using a Canon SX-50 point and shoot camera.
Unfortunately, the sound of WC’s camera shutter drowns out the subtle sounds the male makes as he performs his dance.
One other note: the dancing is incredibly hard work. You can see the male panting between episodes. Which may be one of the reasons females use dance performance to pick their mates.
WC has no idea if there is some correlation between our strange, delayed, on again/off again spring and the rare birds turning up in Interior Alaska. But there are certainly rare birds around.
This Swainson’s Hawk (originally misidentified as a Red-tailed Hawk) was along Barley Way, southeast of Delta Junction on May 5. WC actually saw and photographed this bird twice. Swainson’s Hawk, a bird of the Great Plains and Rockies, is rare in Alaska. The species is highly variable; this is a dark morph. But you can see the wing tips extend beyond the tail, the white undertail coverts and the white mustache and nares make a certain identification.
Another, different Swainson’s Hawk turned up in Fairbanks recently and has been hanging around the south side of Fairbanks International Airport.
This photo was taken with WC’s point-and-shoot camera, a Canon SX-50. It has a pretty powerful telephoto and while the image quality isn’t on a par with the Canon 1D-X, it’s perfectly acceptable for documenting birds. You can see that this is a different bird, lacking the white edges on the chest feathers. Which means at least two Swainson’s Hawks in Alaska.
Finally, while Tundra Swans are pretty common, the Bewick’s Swan, the Eurasian race of Tundra Swans, are rare.
The field mark for Bewick’s is that large yellow patch on the upper bill. The Tundra Swans we see around here have a small yellow eye drop; the Bewick’s has a big yellow blotch. Note that this photo is a very heavy crop, 15% of full frame; there’s some detail lost.
Readers may remember that a Eurasian Wigeon and leucistic Canada Goose were here earlier.
WC suspects that even as he writes this post there are some hard core listers who are buying tickets for a trip to “get” these birds for their life lists. WC isn’t much of a chaser, although he does keep a life list. Still, it’s pretty cool… No, that’s a poor choice of words for this freezing cold spring. Let’s say instead it’s a delight to find these rarities.
Several of you have emailed WC, asking for the location of the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. WC thought his post this morning was pretty clear about this: it’s pretty easy to disturb a lek. And when disturbed, the males take their act elsewhere. So, sorry but no.
But WC will go so far as to offer a photo taken by Mrs. WC, showing the location of the lek at one point was on the hood of the pickup.
And that WC had doughnuts for breakfast.
Identifying the location of the lek area, as seen through the windshield, is left as an exercise for the reader.
 And in the words of Peter Mulvey, “The windshields in this town have all seen better days.”
It’s not appropriate to anthropomorphize birds. There’s not a lot of room in that peanut-sized brain for deep thoughts.But WC, photographing Sharp-tailed Grouse at a lek near Delta Junction, imagines the male’s thoughts going something like this.
These are five of perhaps 300 photos WC took at the lek. After giggling helplessly for a couple of minutes at the incredible antics. All were taken using the truck as a blind. The secret, of course, is finding a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. Can you keep a secret? So can WC.
It’s been a particularly fine spring migration for raptors, with all of the resident and regular transients present in substantial numbers.
As WC has noted before, Rough-legged Hawks don’t breed in Interior Alaska, but pass through the Interior en route to the foothills of the North Slope. The numbers of Rough-leggeds moving through the Interior this spring were the highest in WC’s memory.
By contrast, Red-tailed Hawks do breed in the Interior. Their densities are low, but a nest or two can usually be found around Fairbanks. Red-tails are variable colored. The most common is the dark phase, called a Harlan’s Hawk (they were originally thought to be a separate species). UPDATE: This, however, is a rarity, a Swainson’s Hawk.
There are four species of Falcons in Interior Alaska. One of them is the Merlin. This bird has prey, specifically a Lesser Yellowlegs. It’s hidden in this shot.
There were a lot of Northern Harriers around, and this guy was very worried one of those big birds would take his prize away, so he flew off, with the long yellow legs of his prey dangling below.
To give you some idea of the strength of this little Falcon, the Yellowlegs weighs about half the weight of the Merlin, 2.8 ounces against 6.0 ounces.
In addition to the species shown here, on Thursday night, May 9, we also saw American Kestrels, Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers. And more than ten thousand Sandhill Cranes. It’s enough to leave even a non-birder rapt.
There aren’t many moments in WC’s birding career that he can describe as epic. But Sunday night in the barley and hay fields southeast of Delta Junction was one of them. It started in the morning with long lines of Trumpeter and Tundra Swans flying in from the Tanana River.
If you look carefully, you can see multiple lines of swans flying in from the North, presumably after spending the night on the Tanana River. The birds settled on a barley field.
Why so many birds in one field among the dozens of mowed fields in the area? WC has no idea. But the field also held Greater White-fronted Geese, Canada Geese, Sandhill Cranes and hundreds of North Pintail ducks.
Periodically a raptor, usually a hawk but sometimes a Bald Eagle or a Peregrine Falcon, would fly over the fields and put up hundreds, soemtimes thousands of birds. These Northern Pintails lifted in response to a flyover by a Peregrine Falcon.
The eastern Alaska Range was out on a perfect day, tempting WC to attempt photos of the birds in front of the snow-covered peaks. These Canada and White-fronted Geese are in front of Meteor Peak.
But mostly WC was content to listen and watch. It was both a visual and a sonic treat. The sounds of all those birds made a nearly-endless winter nearly worth it. This is one of nature’s truly great spectacles,, millions of birds flying thousands of miles. It’s awe-inspiring and glorious. WC is very grateful for having been in the right place at the right time. May your spring bring you equal moments of joy.
(WC will have more photos from his epic day in future posts.)
UPDATE: WC’s buddy Ronn Murray shot a short video clip, with sound, that give you some idea of what was going on down by Delta.
Interior Alaska only gets two species of Goose regularly. Both are present at Creamer’s Refuge now, bringing with them the faintest hint of spring.
The Greater White-fronted Goose has to be one of the easiest IDs in birding. No other Norther American bird has orange legas, and orange bill and a white ring where the bill meets the head. The broken horizontal stripes on the belly give the bird its other name, “Speckle Belly.”
Canada Geese – not “Canadian Geese,” thank you – are so common that it takes unusual behavior to get WC to even click the shutter. The symmetry of the wings and reflection is a lucky accident; WC was working on autofocus for birds in flight and landing.
These otherwise fairly pedestrian shots benefit from the early twilight; hence the title of the post. If you’ll excuse WC, he’s off to photograph birds now. Before it starts snowing again.
There were a few uncommon birds at Creamer’s Migratory Wildlife Refuge on Saturday night.
First, there was an unusual leucistic Canada Goose.
It’s certainly the palest Canada Goose WC has ever seen. On Saturday night, it was in the southeast corner, near the fence, if you live in or near Fairbanks.
Leucism occurs in many species of animal, not just birds. It’s not really visible against the bright snow, but the neck was dark grey and not jet black.
There was also a migrant from Eurasia, a Eurasian Wigeon.
The white stripe against the ruddy face and neck is an unambiguous identification mark for this species. This bird was a long ways away; this photo was taken with a 600mm lens and then cropped to 10% of the original. A lot of detail is lost, but it’s a clear confirmation for ID purposes. Last night it was in the far north pond.
Here’s the very common American Wigeon, for comparison, for WC’s readers who aren’t experienced birders:
You can see how very different the head is; the bold green eye patch in contrast to the ruddy head. Both have the white stripe on the head.
Creamer’s Refuge is a treasure. It’s common to see cars with NRA and Save ANWR stickers parked side-by-side, the drivers out with identical smiles on their faces, taking in the sights and the sounds of spring migration. It is very good to see it filling up with birds.
A cautionary note.
Last night as WC was taking some of the bird photos that are in this morning’s post, he was asked, “What does it take to be a bird photographer?”
Every word of Mia’s answer is absolutely true. Be warned.
Interior Alaska’s, ahem, glacial spring migration is inching along. There are Trumpeter Swans at Creamer’s Refuge.
Trumpeters, Cygnus buccinator, are North America’s largest waterfowl, and at 25-26 pounds, among the heaviest flighted birds. Powerful elegant and graceful in the air, their presence is good evidence there is liquid water somewhere around here, despite the freezing 15 mph wind out of the north.
They get respect, too. You can see the Mallard drake scurrying out of the landing zone. Landing into the wind, the birds were almost hovering. You can see from the attitude of their wings they aren’t stalling as they approach the small puddle.
And it was cold. In this photo you can see the ice rim that has built up on the bird’s bill from foraging for barley in the puddles.
Of course, a 15 mph wind is nothing to a bird that migrates a thousand miles or more. But WC hadn’t thought a hat would be necessary on, you know, May 1. A mistake, you’ll agree. Especially if you were outside after 7 PM. So while the swans are a good sign, it’s not spring just yet.
These photos were all taken with the new Canon 1D-X, a 300mm lens with a 2.0 teleconverter and hand-held. With some practice, WC thinks this camera is going to work out pretty well.
WC probably should have known better. The snow squalls might have been a clue. The low-20s temperature was a tip. But WC nevertheless headed to Delta Junction in hopes of finding signs of spring bird migration.
Note the tire tracks in the fresh snow are all from folks sensibly leaving. The day alternated near-blizzard, near-whiteout conditions with flat white light and the occasional watery sunbeams. Difficult conditions and light for bird photography. But there weren’t any new birds to photograph anyway. Spring migration is now officially two or three weeks behind schedule.
There were Rough-legged Hawks everywhere. The increasing wind out of the northwest had them pinned down, as well as the irregular snow squalls. The big rolls of hay were favorite posts, especially the leeward sides.
This is part of a flock of 250-300 Snow Buntings foraging in the wind-blown fields southeast of Delta.
The Snow Buntings and the Rough-leggeds are North Slope breeders; they are the first arrivals in Spring Migration and, three weeks in to the process, are pretty much the only ones present in numbers. Sure, there are some over-excited Canada Geese and a handful of Trumpeter Swans. WC found a few Red-tailed Hawks and two Northern Harriers. But nothing like the numbers of the variety we should have at the end of April.
The inch of snow in the forecast isn’t particularly encouraging. Yes, WC knows, spring will come. Spring birds will arrive. But at this point they are going to be seriously late. And Spring is going to be seriously messy.