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…
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.
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.
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!