Yes, you can hear the trucks in the background from I-94 but that is the only negative thing about this wonderful place.
Driving across country last summer, my husband and I were always on the lookout for nice, clean, free campgrounds. We found a handful that we remember with fondness and this one tops the list.
Sweet Briar Lake was created by a dam if I remember correctly, and it appears to be a good fishing spot. But if you care about birds, this place is a bonanza. From just our little spot overlooking the lake we watched white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and Canada geese swim around and generally busy themselves, and heard red-winged blackbirds make their lovely background music. Most likely a walk around the lake would have resulted in seeing more species but we were more than thrilled to just stay put and enjoy this peaceful display.
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.
My husband and I were a little disappointed about only seeing a couple of birds at the Randall Davey Audubon Center in Santa Fe but we went during the hottest part of the day in early May so we weren’t too surprised.
There were numerous finches at the feeder, a gorgeous hawk moth at some flowers, a squirrel keeping busy digging in the dirt, and an unknown bird foraging in the bushes and parking lot.
What makes this place special are of course the volunteers and the beautiful terrain including the hillside trails, and the gorgeous adobe buildings. And the awesome bee hotel deserves a mention. I’d like to go back someday when it’s a little cooler, perhaps in the winter when there are more birds around.
The second part to the amazing May 2017 birding experience I had in Salida, Colorado was Sands Lake State Wildlife Area. It consists of Sands Lake and a stretch of the Arkansas River – my husband and I spent about an hour walking the lovely trails and walkway along the river.
The lake has had a lot of effort put into it to be bird friendly. Two islands naturally create a safe atmosphere for waterbirds like pelicans, geese and ducks. And at least two nesting platforms have been put up, as well as a handful of (floating?) platforms scattered around the lake.
The most exciting sighting of the day was an American Dipper, a first for me. And I even managed to get a decent shot of it.
We also saw a yellow-rumped warbler, several yellow warblers, cedar waxwings, and tree swallows in areas along the river and lake. A memorable sighting was the pair of ospreys, one on a nest and the other perched on a light pole nearby. Below are the rest of the photos. Hope you get to visit Salida some day!
Last summer my husband and I were able to take a 3 month trip from Texas to Alaska. We spent most of our time in New Mexico and Colorado, in May, and both of those states provided some amazing birding.
Salida, Colorado was a birding bonanza: Frantz Lake along the Arkansas River and the nearby Sands Lake (in the next post).
County road 154 is a birding spot in itself. Mountain bluebirds and tree swallows nest in the birdhouses that have been erected along the road. Canada geese and mule deer abound. *Click on the first image below and scroll to the right to view a larger image and see captions.*
Frantz Lake itself is a nice little turquoise-tinted reservoir next to the Arkansas River. Here I found 2 grebes, a western and a pied-billed, common mergansers, and white-faced ibises (a first!). Along with Canada geese, blackbirds and mallards.
A little ways away, by the Arkansas River, a red-tailed hawk flew overhead and white-crowned sparrows were foraging and flitting around on the dirt trail.
(Some of these images are sized 1920×1080 so can be used for that size monitor, I kept the copyright small. I like desktop wallpaper with a lot of blank space so it doesn’t feel cluttered and a couple of these photos work well for that.)
It snowed while we were in Salida in the middle of May – it’s at 7000 feet – but that was the day we were leaving and the sun came out just a bit later, so no harm done. 🙂 Thanks for looking!
A few years ago I went with my husband up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay. We stopped a few different places including a storage yard and former state camp called Happy Valley where I found one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever happened upon… a raven’s nest in a mounted rack of moose antlers with two babies in it!
There are tons of wild turkeys on the Big Island of Hawaii! They roam the golf courses and lava rock fields searching for insects, lizards, seeds, berries and anything else that’s edible and relatively small. It’s a lovely thing to see.
The Wild Turkey evolved in America and was domesticated by Native Americans. In the early 1500s turkeys domesticated by the Aztecs were taken to Europe and interestingly enough, their descendants were brought back to America by the pilgrims who soon found out their indigenous neighbors were raising them too.
They spread to China and in 1788 they were introduced from there to the Hawaiian islands. Over the years, more have been released, whether purposely or not, by ranches and farms and perhaps by people who wanted to hunt them. Currently you can hunt them on the island along with pheasant, doves, francolin, quail, as well as introduced mammals such as goats, sheep and boar.
Turkeys especially prosper on the Big Island because of it’s dry grassy sloping landscapes, and as you can see, they seem right at home.
The Ala Moana Mall in Honolulu Hawaii is not exactly a birder’s paradise. If you’ve ever been there you’ve probably seen the stage near the Waikiki side entrance. On the day of my visit it was draped in red curtains that created a deeply textured vision of color on the floorboards. Hence the photographs.
Oftentimes birds are there, probably because people feed them. Mall birds. Not exactly picturesque herons or majestic bluebirds. More like zebra doves and rock doves (pigeons). (Are pigeons, like, flying mall rats?)
But every one of those mall birds are just as worthy and deserving of life as any heron or bluebird. So it broke my heart when I discovered that this little zebra dove had its legs entangled with some of kind of thread or very thin fibers. The poor thing managed to walk but its appearance was disheveled, skinny, sickly. The entanglement was taking its toll. You can see its entwined legs clearly in the silhouette photo on the left (click to enlarge).
I look back at that moment with regret. I regret that I did not help that bird. I could have found some big gloves and grabbed the bird and cut that twisted piece of twine that was holding it hostage. That would have at least given it a chance.
As you can see it came right over to me, along with several pigeons, probably looking for a generous person tossing scraps. It was close enough to me so that I could have done it!
But no, there were no gloves and I am not that gutsy. Not that spontaneous. And maybe it’s not a good idea to touch a bird that might be diseased or to take these matters into my own hands.
All I know is, we need to do more for the birds that are affected by our carelessness.
This is what a healthy zebra dove looks like, found right down the street near the Ala Wai Boat Harbor.
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!
I 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.
The one on the left has red combs above its eyes so we know it’s a male (click it for a better view). I’ve seen quite a few spruce grouse over the years but never have I seen the courtship display. The National Geographic Feild Guide to Birds says “In courtship strutting display, male spreads his tail, erects the red combs above his eyes, and rapidly beats his wings; some males also give a series of low-pitched hoots.” This would be something to see!
The male on the left is standing next to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and my husband and I saw at least 10 or 20 when we were driving the pipeline access road for a couple of hours. The spruce grouse is a game bird and hunters can take them throughout Alaska except during the months of May, June & July (with a few exceptions). It is somewhat common to hunt them for food. To me, this is a necessary evil. I’m a birder and I consider myself an environmentalist but I think that hunting has a role to play in a healthy diet. As long as the bird dies quickly and the meat is used for food I am not against this. I have had ptarmigan myself, but never grouse. It was delicious. Eating a bird that has had a ‘happy’ life is better for everyone, and for the world, than one who lives in tiny cages or in huge flocks in warehouses.
Residents of Alaska can also kill cormorants, crows, and Snowy Owls, as long as they are taken for food or clothing. It sounds cruel but there are Alaska Native traditions that involve these birds and their feathers and this must be respected as long as the birds are not endangered.
The spruce grouse on the right, and its chick, were spotted on a trail about a mile off the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks, back in 2006. You can see the female has a reddish-brown stripe over its eye, reminiscent of the male. I don’t remember exactly what time of year I took the photos but it was probably early June or late May. (I’m not sure exactly what to call the baby since it seems bigger than a chick and smaller than a juvenile. It’s more like a ‘tween. 🙂
Hard to believe but this bird subsists mainly on spruce needles! They must have powerful digestive systems. They can stuff their crops full of the equivalent of 10% of their body weight, to be digested later, and their gizzards grow by 75% during the winter when their energy needs increase.
As someone who lives in interior Alaska year-round, I’m quite impressed with a bird that can live here in the winter. Along with ravens and chickadees, they have adapted some clever ways to make it.
Here’s to a mild winter for us all!
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.
Kind of hard to believe that little twig can hold him up. He must be all fluff.
And life goes on….
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.
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.
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!
If 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.
The 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.
It’s amazing that any pigeons at all make it through our frigid Fairbanks winters.
This year we saw several weeks of sustained 30-40 below zero (F) weather and they are still flying around! (This photo was taken when it was about 30 below.)
They perch at night in attics and eaves, and sometimes in trees. Some nice people throw seed on the ground outside their homes throughout the winter, and the birds congregate in those places during the day. Not so much different then me feeding little redpolls and chickadees I suppose!
My friend and I drove into Homer, Alaska one evening in April of 2006. Our trip was fortunately timed – though not purposely – because we caught the eagles still in town. They were reaping the benefits of friendly human feeders before leaving for summer’s greener pastures.
As we drove down onto the Homer Spit eagles were perched on nearly every building. The sun’s long evening rays set them off and they were so still that we asked each other, are they real?? But as we drove down the spit to the Land’s End Hotel, we saw enough of them shuffle their feathers or blink their eyes to know they were totally and gorgeously real.
If I had only thought to take a photo… (Though at that time I used a plain point and shoot which would not have done justice to the moment.)
Over the next couple of days I took plenty of time to walk the beaches and absorb the feelings of a place that was (and still is) pretty much totally foreign to me. As a landlubber in Alaska I see plenty of wildlife, but usually not the same wildlife as near the coasts.
This was a common sight on the beaches, people leaving fish guts and carcases out for the eagles. Gulls and crows benefit too.
I never saw an eagle growing up (bald or not!) until about 10 years ago. Now I see them at least a couple of times a year in and around Fairbanks. It could be that as a child or young adult I wasn’t paying attention, but I’d be willing to bet that their population has grown throughout Alaska over the last couple of decades as it has generally in North America.
On the right you can see the mottled feather pattern of a 2 or 3 year old eagle. It takes 4 years for an eagle to get its adult plumage and wing length.
Valdez has quite a few bald eagles too, but I’ve never seen this many at a time anywhere but Homer. (Some day I’ll make it to Haines too for the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival and the Chilkat Preserve.) If you’re a bald eagle fan all three of these places should be on your list!
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.
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 the 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!
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.)
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! —————————
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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.