Posts tagged “biology

Kolea, Akekeke & Honu

It’s interesting to see which bird species congregate together, or at least tolerate each other if their habitats overlap.  In this case it’s the Pacific Golden-Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, or in Hawaiian terms Kolea and Akekeke, respectively.

These birds were foraging on the lava rock beach on the western coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.  The turnstone is keeping itself busy in the shallow pool, bathing and looking for food, possibly turning stones over like its name implies it should.  It draws the attention of two plovers who seem determined to intimidate the turnstone, or at the very least keep an eye on him or her.  The plovers are only slightly larger than the turnstone, 1/4 inch in length, according to National Geographic Field Guides, but maybe that’s enough to be the generally more dominant species.  There are photos of other sights in this area underneath the video, such as a green sea turtle (Honu, in Hawaiian), a wasp and what I think is a Wandering Tattler.


Raven yanks another raven’s tail

The average adult raven is about 2.5 pounds and it’s hard to tell adults from juveniles.  The below video shows a power struggle between ravens at a food source.  At the very beginning you can see a raven on the far left grab another raven’s tail feathers with his beak and pull him or her away from the food.  Another seems to join in.  (By the way, if the video is blurry find the settings in the bottom right hand corner of the player and change it to a higher resolution.  Youtube automatically chooses a low setting so it will download faster.)

After reading Ravens in Winter, a book by Bernd Heinrich, I’m inclined to believe that the commotion going on in the video has to do with a power struggle (to gain access to the food) between the juvenile birds and the adults.  According to Heinrich, adults are usually silent at carcasses (dead animals in the wild), and juveniles are very noisy.  The juveniles “yell” at kills and make a commotion, possibly to attract more juveniles to the kill, in order to compete with the adults and gain access to the food.

Heinrich “proves” through observation and careful note-taking that ravens actively recruit other ravens to food piles.  He speculates, after studying raven behavior for many years, that this recruitment is not necessarily altruistic, or done in order to get the favor back some day.  Instead, it is probably related more to “gaining or maintaining access to the food than to sharing the wealth.”

Juveniles actively recruit, in order to overwhelm by sheer numbers, the adults at the carcass, so that the adults will give up defending the carcass, which they do when they are just too outnumbered.

So if we can extend this power struggle at carcasses in the field to city food (trash) then it’s possible the squawking raven in the video, the one being pulled from the food by his or her tail feathers, is likely a juvenile, being bossed around by the adults, who are not as vocal.

I strongly encourage any bird lover to read Ravens in Winter.  This bird that I see nearly every day of my life is actually quite mysterious and Heinrich helps us understand their possible and likely motivations.

Thanks for reading!  Happy New Year!

 


Black-Capped Chickadee Beak Deformity

Chickadee with beak deformityI made this little animation to show how this poor chickadee was being bothered by its beak deformity.  Every so often it would rub its beak against the edge of the bird feeder like this.  It appeared relatively healthy so it must have been able to eat satisfactorily, but apparently this deformity causes it to be obsessive about trying to scrape off the excess beak.


Bird Congregation

I don’t think this is a very common sight on the coastal plains of northern Alaska (or anywhere?), but as my husband drove in to Prudhoe Bay last spring, he spied this unusually large gathering of various birds.

Raven, Rough-Legged HawkThe rough-legged hawk and raven seem to be acting as sentries over the vast flocks, but they are watching for sinister purposes.

Rough-legged HawkYes, watching carefully.

Rough-legged hawk eating a duckSure enough,  a hawk has gotten herself a meal.

Rough-legged hawk But really, how can you blame her?

Short-eared OwlA short-eared owl perches nearby.

Kind of hard to believe that little twig can hold him up.  He must be all fluff.

And life goes on….


Butterfly Exits Cocoon

I imagine that most people who like birds don’t mind butterflies, so here’s a slideshow I created from photos taken last summer of a butterfly leaving a cocoon.  For over a week I kept the camera and its time lapse device set up outside, through heat and rain, waiting until it broke out of its temporary home… then the actual event lasted only a few minutes!  And because of memory card limitations I could only set the camera to take a photo every 30 seconds – I wish it could’ve been a shorter interval – but I’m still pleased with the few shots I got.

I don’t know the specific name of this butterfly but I’ve definitely seen it before.

Butterfly Leaving Cocoon 1Butterfly Leaving Cocoon 2

Butterfly Leaving Cocooon 3

Butterfly Leaving Cocoon 4

After the butterfly left the cocoon it crawled into some potato plant leaves and you can see that it dripped a dark fluid that looks like blood (but of course isn’t).  Apparently it’s a waste product that doesn’t come from their wings as I had first assumed but from their abdomen, being released after chrysalis, the cocoon stage.

ButterflyThe butterfly never opened its wings for me so I didn’t get that photo.  And I wish I knew the name of this butterfly!  Please comment if you have any idea.  Thanks and I hope everyone is having a terrific summer!


Redpoll Baby (and it just stopped snowing!)

Redpoll Baby

I’m happy to say my husband caught the birding bug!  He took this photo of a juvenile redpoll.  I would even go as far as calling it a baby redpoll.  It’s hard to tell how tiny it is, but he said just a couple inches, really small.  The short tail feathers probably enhance the tiny effect.

We’re a bit surprised that there are fledged redpolls this early in the spring.  It stopped snowing less than 2 weeks ago!  And now it’s 70 degrees, go figure.  Either way, my husband said this little guy flew away,barely, so maybe he or she will have a fighting chance.


Redpoll: Adapted to Gorging

Common Redpoll - Fairbanks, Alaska

These redpolls, and many more, are coming to our feeder lately in droves.   I’ve started putting seed out one or two times a day instead of letting them gorge themselves at the feeder nonstop.  I don’t want to test it out but I would be willing to bet they could empty the  entire contents of the feeder in only one day. (It’s on the small side but can still fit at least a quart jar’s worth of sunflower hearts.)

It’s unbelievable how much they can eat.  My guess as to how many birds visit the feeder per day is perhaps 30 to 40, though it could be upwards of 100 or more stopping by once a day (or less often).

Actually, they aren’t eating most of the seed.  Apparently they store it in their “esophageal diverticulum” and regurgitate it later to eat in peace.

Redpoll - Fairbanks, Alaska

These two”on-alert” fine fellows might actually be females (lack of red on their chests).

Once late May and June arrive, the birds practically disappear, so even if they are acting like little piggies at the trough right now, we still enjoy them!


“Planned Pigeonhood” in Waikiki

Pigeons in WaikikiIf you’ve been fortunate enough to visit the beautiful island of Hawaii you’ve probably visited Honolulu.  And if you’ve visited Honolulu that means you’ve probably been to Waikiki.  And if you’ve been to Waikiki that means you’ve seen the pigeons (a.k.a. rock doves).

Lovely birds, as special as any living creature, but not very popular with the tourists.

Hawaii is a common destination for Alaskans in the winter.  With an almost total lack of sunshine from November to February we pledge to ourselves that this winter we are getting out!  Hopefully it happens.  And there is nary a more direct route to full-on sunshine then the quick five or so hours from Anchorage to Honolulu.

Pigeon missing footThe pigeon on the very left is looking pretty mangy (click on the photo to see it larger).  There are so many pigeons in Waikiki, with no natural predators anywhere in sight, that they over breed and become a danger to themselves and people.  The photo on the right shows another pigeon from Waikiki, this one missing a foot and walking around a restaurant hunting for food scraps and somehow managing to avoid being clobbered.

So when I saw this posting by the Human Society about OvoControl, a contraceptive-laced food that property owners can feed pigeons, I was thrilled.  It describes how the manager of The International Marketplace, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Waikiki, chose to take a chance on the product and saw a 60% reduction in pigeons after 12 months. (It costs $9 a day to feed/treat 100 pigeons.)

Talk about an ideal non-violent and humane solution!  Maybe this will catch on in communities that are fed up with the overpopulation of this city-loving bird.


A chubby Redpoll can’t stop eating

Fat Redpoll

A few years ago a chubby Redpoll visited our feeder.

This antique dish had broken and I couldn’t part with it, so I put seed in it, and the redpoll adopted it.  He (or she) sat right in it and ate and ate and ate.  Like his full switch never got flipped.

He moved quite slow.  My husband and I figured that he was missing some kind of instinct or characteristic that gives birds their fast-twitch, jumpy nature.  Probably something that they need to survive.

He’s puffed up too because of the chilly weather, but this bird was quite unusual in that he was fatter, slower, and never flew away intermittently like the other birds.  He was totally content to eat continuously, rarely looking up.  This was the very last photo I took and out of at least 20, this is the only time I got him looking up.

After watching hundreds or even thousands of birds at the feeder over the years, this little guy’s behavior was profoundly different than all the others.


A Snow Bunting at Pictured Rocks

I saw a snow bunting once before, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.  In its summer garb.  But this one I spied on a gravel road in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan in its winter plumage. My husband and I were in the middle of a 6 week long road trip that started and ended at our home in Fairbanks, Alaska, but that took us through 4 Canadian provinces and at least 14 states.  And of all the amazing times we had this snow bunting was actually pretty special because it was one of the few close encounters with birds that I had over the whole 6 weeks.

Michigan’s scenery, little did I know, is astoundingly beautiful!  I had no idea there were sand dunes in the Midwest!  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (on left) is a must-see part of North America.

As is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on thePictured Rocks National Lakeshore - Michigan Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  You can see red-orange sandstone that is 500 million years old in the photo on the right.  This cliff has been beautifully sculpted by the waters of Lake Superior.  The interesting part is that even though the rock that makes up the landform is hundreds of millions of years old, the cliff itself that you see jutting out into the water is only a few thousands of years old.  No landform around this area could be older than 12,000 years old because that’s when glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age.  But this land is rising.  It has risen far enough up since then, and been sculpted by the forces of erosion, to give us a spectacular view of rock formations that used to be buried.

So as my husband and I are visiting this most scenic of places, this snow bunting is pick pick picking at bits of something along a gravel road, letting me get closer and closer with my camera.

He must have just arrived from more northerly climes, smartly getting busy eating as many seeds and insects that he can before the coming winter.  Snow buntings spend the summer in Alaska and northern Canada and before winter fly to the Midwest of America, southern Canada, and the coastlines of Alaska.  Males have darker heads in the winter and more black on their wings, like this little guy.

I know all this about snow buntings now because I have my handy birding books around me.  But when I was taking the photos I thought maybe it was a sparrow of some kind.  To my delight, when I finally got home and looked it up I found out it was a snow bunting which is not a sparrow.  I would have never recognized it because the one I saw in Prudhoe Bay was in it’s June breeding plumage which is mostly white.  Moral of the story:  take at least one birding book with you on your road trip!

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore


Chipmunks at Athabasca Falls (not a bird to be seen)

My husband and I are presently traveling from the north of the United States – Alaska – to the south of it – North Carolina.  I have gotten some unbelievable photographs of wildlife, including a close encounter with a grizzly bear that was digging up roots alongside the Alaska Highway (you can see them here).

Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta, Canada were spectacular.  Surrounded by sunlit mountains, we drove through the parks with our mouths agape, peaks above us and streams meandering through valleys below us.  And though we saw barely a creature but tourist’s dogs in the parks, I did catch a few up close photos of scurrying chipmunks at Athabasca Falls in Jasper.

Canadians definitely have their national parks figured out, if these two are representations of them as a whole.  Athabasca Falls had wooden stairways interspersed between towering rocks – sometimes you have to duck to or go single-file to get through.  Lots of concrete walkways in different viewpoints of the falls, accessed by sun dappled paths with views of game trails through the moss.  A peaceful and necessary stop, and in our case at least, not too crowded.

The only large wild mammal we saw in the parks was Bighorn Sheep.  A group of 6 or 7 were nibbling something on the rocks (my husband says they were ingesting minerals from the rocks).  The chipmunks were also nibbling, moving with rocket speed over the concrete and moss, not too scared of us big hulking humans except perhaps to be caught underfoot.

So, no birds this time.  The only ones I’ve managed to capture with my camera are swans and ravens, back up in the Yukon Territory.  But that’s a post for another day.   Until then, best wishes to you all…

Don’t forget to click for larger images! 


Reflections on the Sandhill Crane

The Sandhill Crane has a lot of personality.  From their rattling call to their long legs and red banded eyes, you can’t mistake one.  Especially given it’s statuesque 4 foot height… good thing they don’t want to get too close to us because they would probably be quite intimidating!

The one on the left popped up at a pond my husband and I like to visit near our house.  In May, full of mosquitoes, but an unexpected sweet birding spot.  This bird wanted us to remove ourselves quickly.  I presume it was spreading its wings in an attempt to make itself look bigger and more menacing.  It was having a private moment, who are we to interrupt!?  So we snapped a couple shots and skedaddled.  (Although I don’t know that this would be a safe place to make a nest because of neighborhood dogs or other wandering animals like foxes.)

As you can see, they have a lot of color variation, in fact their rust and gray blend is quite striking, having an almost metallic glint to it.

The photos on the right are from Creamer’s Field, an awesome place in Fairbanks to see migrating cranes, geese, and ducks.  (I’ll do a post on it in the future.)  The pair on the right must be a parent and offspring, since the one hasn’t attained adult coloring of gray and red face.  If you want to see a short video of this pair click here, but if you do, keep an eye peeled for the Canada Geese in the background waddling through the grass.

The splendid artwork on the left was found driving through North Dakota or thereabouts, and if I remember right they were celebrating a crane festival.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who finds Sandhill Cranes to be extraordinary creatures!       —————————

Remember, you can click on any of these images to see their maximum size, and then click the “back” button to get back to this page.  And, if you need the font size to be bigger on this or any webpage, press Ctrl at the same time as the + sign.


A Merlin Hits our Window

I was only a few feet from the window when this Merlin flew into it with a jarring thud.  As you an see, he is quite stunned in the first photo.  Poor guy.  He’s about a foot long, a pretty small falcon.  At first I thought he was an American Kestrel since I had never seen a Merlin.  Didn’t even know they were in interior Alaska.

This one is either a female or a juvenile (or both).  No doubt he was drawn to the multitudes of Juncos and Chickadees at our feeder (actually in the summer we don’t use a feeder but just put sunflower seed hearts on the deck railing so they don’t gorge themselves).  So this little guy was hunting our lovely resident birds, hmm.

Turns out the Taiga Merlin is quite common in Alaska and Canada and their populations are stable.  There is also the Prairie Merlin that is increasing in number – apparently it’s getting quite used to city life where it overwinters, feeding on rodents and birds.  The Black Merlin lives in the Pacific Northwest (it’s numbers are also stable).  (There is also a Eurasian Merlin that is a separate species, having ceased to interbreed with the North American Merlin at least a million years ago, and their numbers are less certain.)

Nearly all of Alaska’s Merlins migrate.  They may winter in North America or South America, often along coastlines feeding on shorebirds.  No vegetarian meals for this carnivore – the smallest thing it eats are perhaps dragonflies plucked from the air as it’s soaring over the trees during migration.

The Merlin is a tough little falcon, it will attack anything and teams up with its mate to cooperatively hunt.  It even takes birds larger than itself, like pigeons; it is known as a “pigeon hawk” in many areas.

Instead of tedious nest-building Merlins use old crow or magpie nests, or they make due with a cliff outcropping or scrape in the gravel.  The female lays 3 to 6 eggs and sits on them for a month, both feed the little ones for another month, and then the fledglings continue to beg for awhile longer.

Here is a photo of the powder he left on the window.  He really hit it hard.  Many birds have a light dusting of powder all throughout their feathers.  It comes from down feathers that grow and disintegrate.  Since feathers are made of keratin that’s what the dust is made of, and it actually causes allergies in some people who keep birds indoors.  For the bird, it’s crucial to waterproofing and cleaning.

My husband and I have tried various things to prevent birds from hitting our windows, like hanging shiny objects over them, but I haven’t found anything yet that is attractive and easy to clean around (and effective for that matter).

The Merlin eventually flew up to a railing, then off into the woods.  I hope he remembers how painful our windows are so he doesn’t fly into them again.  More than just his ego was bruised I’m sure.


Pine Grosbeak – Oct 2011

My most recent “new bird” was the Pine Grosbeak, which came to the sunflower seed hearts laid out on our deck railing on October 13th 2011.  When you first start being interested in birds it’s like every one you see is a “new bird” to you.  And though Pine Grosbeaks are not uncommon here in Fairbanks, I never came across one until now even after 6 or 7 years of birding.

Pine Grosbeaks are plump colorful finches about the size of robins and they live in Alaska all winter.

This one is either a female or immature male; adult males are bright red.  Their vocalizations are quite melodious.  This species is not endangered – it is somewhat common in northern coniferous forests.  It does venture down into the midwest and eastern states in winter sometimes.

Pine Grosbeaks are generally monogamous, forming pairs before arriving at their breeding grounds.  The female builds a nest, lays 3 or 4 eggs, and the male brings her food while she sits on them for about 2 weeks.  When they hatch, both parents feed them for another couple of weeks while in the nest, but they continue to beg for food even after leaving the nest.  I’m guessing this one is a young male, possibly searching for a flock to join because except for during breeding time they are usually seen in large flocks.  My husband and I enjoyed seeing this bird during an early snow with a dollop of snow on the tip of its beak.  Hope it found some friends!


An Ode to Summer

That’s what this blog is, an ode to summer.  Alaskans worship summer and in January or February we start getting a bit disenchanted.  So this bird blog is self-administered therapy.  A reminder that the darkness and frigid temperatures will subside.

This blog is therapy in another way too…a way to take my mind off of things like politics, greed, pollution, disaster.  Stuff like that.  For some reason I believe that we should pay attention to the bad stuff in the world as much as the good stuff.  So you can imagine, I need a bird blog to take my mind off of it.

The first bird I’m going to blog about is a flying squirrel… yeah, not exactly a bird but, you see, it’s my spirit animal

Supposedly seeing a flying squirrel is somewhat rare, but the darn things just won’t leave me alone!

All spring, summer and fall they frequent my bird feeder.  For several months in the summer they are as regular as clockwork, arriving about 1am and gorging themselves on sunflower seed hearts.  I say “they” because I have no way of telling if it’s the same squirrel or several different ones. Only one time did I see two at once, making a ruckus in their frantic search for the feeder that had been moved to a different location.  Since then, my husband and I have nixed the bird feeder and just regularly put a small amount of seed out on the deck railing.  No need for gorging since sunflower hearts are not a natural food for chickadee or squirrel.

These photos were taken May 29, 2010 in the wee hours of the morning.  It hardly even gets dark at that time of year, although I did I have to lighten the photos somewhat.

The real clincher that convinced me the flying squirrel is my spirit animal is that one jumped on my face inside of my father’s home.  Yes, that’s right, on my face, inside a house.

My father lives in Minnesota and during a visit, as I was walking into the bathroom, I noticed the cat was looking at something and twitching its tail.  Not something that would alarm me.  But as soon as I entered the bathroom a small furry thing landed on my face, blocking my vision.  My very first thought was, how did the cat get on my face!?  Almost immediately it jumped off, landing on the floor and scurrying away. (The flying squirrels down there are about half the size of the one pictured here.)  My cries of alarm brought family members and even though my father said to kill it, my husband captured it and set it loose outside.  My hero.

Turns out, flying squirrels get inside my Dad’s house on a regular basis.  One was even found dead.  It landed on a cactus and got stuck there and died.  Who knows how long it was there before they found it.  True story.  That dusty museum has a lot of stories, but never before had a flying varmint landed on someone’s face.  (Yes, it did scratch my face just enough to draw 3 tiny drops of blood, after which being wiped off you couldn’t tell where they had been.  And no, I didn’t seriously consider rabies shots.)

Such an intimate encounter is bound to pique the curiosity so I did some research on the flying squirrel.  Little had I known it eats truffles, a type of fungus, as its main food, found in the ground and around rotting trees.  Lichen, insects, buds, flowers, scavenged meat, berries and tree sap are other dining options when they can be found.  They often cache lichen and seeds when supplies are scarce, and steal red squirrel caches when the poor saps are hibernating.

These 2 photos were taken July 24, 2011.  You can click on the one on the left and it will enlarge quite a bit.

Flying squirrels do not hibernate and are active all winter, though they do enter torpor, a deep sleep, as long as it’s about 40 degrees below zero F or colder. They often share nests, most commonly 2-5 individuals who suffer the frigid cold huddled together inside tree cavities in summer or witch’s brooms in winter.  Witch’s brooms are dense snarls of branches that occur when a fungus attacks spruce trees. Squirrels hollow them out and line them with moss, lichen, feathers or anything they can find that could make their slumber that much more comfy. 

Sometimes I feel like I enter torpor in the winter too.   I defintely sleep more when its 40 degrees below zero or colder.  I’m nocturnal and prefer small groups or being alone, just like the flying squirrel.  I identify with the little guys, and am fascinated by them.  So it’s decided, the flying squirrel is my spirit animal.

And now, on to the birds!