Posts tagged “environment

Why did the Lesser Yellowlegs cross the road?

To lead me away from her nesting site most likely!

It’s not too hard to find Lesser Yellowlegs in interior Alaska during the summer months if you get a ways out of town near some water.  And you’ll know you found one when you hear that mind-numbing “TU TU TU” alarm call.  (You can hear it here.)

The Greater Yellowlegs – a larger version of this bird – also visits Alaska in the spring and summer, but doesn’t come this far north.  In the winter, Yellowlegs sandpipers can be found in Mexico and the coastal and southern edge of the U.S.

They eat aquatic insects, snails, & small fish, nest in depressions in the ground in bogs and treeless tundra, and give birth to 4 eggs which when hatched are precocial which means they can fend for themselves as soon as their natal down is dry.

It’s hard to believe, but people used to hunt sandpipers like these!  These skinny little birds were game species and apparently market hunters nearly wiped out many types of shorebirds before they were protected in the early 1900s.  Thank goodness!!!

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Curious Townsend’s Warbler

This little guy showed up on our deck about noon in May of 2010.  He was very inquisitive!  I don’t think he took one morsel of food from the feeder, but instead checked everything out very methodically and even peered at us through the window!

I wonder what he saw!?

If only we could know what was going on in that little bird brain of his!

 


The sun came out just long enough for me to shoot a vole (with my camera, that is!)

Interior Alaska is having a big vole year!  This should mean large populations of birds that prey on them right?  Like owls and falcons.  I’m seeing a Merlin falcon around our house every couple of days, and if this vole thought he was safe just sitting right out in the open like this one did yesterday, then the falcons will have a successful season.  Maybe he was curious of me, or more probably he thought he was being sly by not moving.  And for the poor eyes of humans, unlike falcons, we will often be fooled.

Nearly every woman I know wrinkles her nose when voles are mentioned.  But I think they’re adorable.  Not quite as cute as the typical mouse, but close.  Though maybe the ladies are right to be suspect – voles have lots of parasites and can even infect humans with the protozoan Giardia.  They are also notorious for eating garden plants and ruining whole crops.  They might be able to turn me against them if they start finding an appetite for the precious cabbage or squash seedlings I doted on from seed, and that are now in the garden trying to adjust to rain, cold and wind.  (Then again, moose eat my cabbages every fall and I still love them.)

I’m quite sure this is a northern red-backed vole.  Apparently they live only about a year but multiply quickly because they start reproducing as early as 8 weeks old. Gestation length is 3 weeks, each litter can number from 2-11, and one female can have up to 6 litters in one year!

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, voles are “staple foods of weasels, marten, foxes, coyotes, all owls, most hawks, inland breeding gulls, jaegers, and occasionally great blue herons, domestic cats, northern pike, and other voles.”  (!)  This little guy will eat lichen, fungi, seeds, grasses, fruit, insects, and meat.

If you’re wondering how big (or little) he is, my estimation is 3 inches long.  The green on the ground next to him is moss growth because of a wet spring, and we’re seeing the make up of a scant bit of organic matter on the silty ground.  So he is tiny.  In the photo below, you can see that his little front paw blends perfectly with the dead grass.  And perhaps evolution has dictated he have a red back to blend in with the orange-ish dead leaves on the floor of the forests that he inhabits.

Thanks for reading and here’s to hoping we get some well-deserved sunny hot weather in Fairbanks really soon!


Honeymoon Bluebird

Exactly 4 years ago today I took this photo of a Mountain Bluebird in Yellowstone Park.  It was 2 days after my wedding – my husband and I were on our honeymoon.  (On the right is one of the amazing wedding photos Loneman Photography created.)

Supposedly Mountain Bluebirds do visit interior Alaska in the summer but I’ve never seen one here.

I’m happy to say that the population of Mountain Bluebirds, like Eastern Bluebirds, has been aided in conservation efforts by humans.  By putting up nest boxes, humans have helped bluebirds increase in number since a decline in the mid-1900s.   Finally, a success story!


Black-Capped Chickadee Beak Deformity

First seen in the winter of 1991-92, Black-Capped Chickadee beak deformities are now quite common, according to the Alaska Science Center.  To date, there have been over 2100 reports of chickadee beak deformities in Alaska, and only 31 outside of Alaska.  In the photo above, you can see that the chickadee’s beak is at least twice as long as it should be, and the bottom part is crossed and curved up.

The Northwestern Crow suffers from this malady as well, with an astounding 17% of adult birds in Alaska exhibiting some level of beak deformity (as opposed to 6-10% of adult Black-Capped Chickadees).

Other birds with reported beak deformities are the Black-Billed Magpie, Red-Breasted Nuthatch, and Stellar’s Jay – although none of these reports come anywhere close to the high number of sightings of the Black-Capped Chickadee.  Other species of chickadee have been seen with the problem too but they number under 10 total.  Whatever the source of the problem, Black-Caps are especially vulnerable to it.

This map (from alaska.usgs.gov) shows locations of Black-Capped Chickadee beak deformity sightings.  At first they were centered around Bristol Bay and the Mat-Su Valley but they soon spread to Fairbanks (where I live) and elsewhere.  There are plenty of sightings in remote locations so the problem does not exist only in populated areas.

The poor creatures with deformed beaks often have a very hard time eating – it’s actually kind of amazing that they do get by at all.  The one on the right kept rubbing the elongated portion of its beak on the wood of our feeder, as if attempting to rub it off.  No doubt feeders and even garbage help to keep them alive but mortality is undoubtedly higher among them.  Normal preening is greatly disrupted.  And though many of them do find a mate and breed, fewer eggs hatch to a pair in which the female is deformed and fewer young survive when the male is deformed.

Possible causes are contaminants, nutritional deficiencies, disease, genetic abnormalities and parasites.  Read more about those at http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/landbirds/beak_deformity/causes.html

On the left is an example of a normal beak.

 


Running out of suet, after a long cold winter…


Say’s Phoebe on Rosie Creek Trail

I spotted this sunbathing beauty near Rosie Creek Trail outside of Fairbanks in August 2009.

Maybe it was migrating south.  Or maybe it was spending the last couple of days surveying its territory, waiting for a Crane Fly to wander by.  Either way, doesn’t it look more majestic than its humble 4 or 5 inches?

The Say’s Phoebe is named after Thomas Say, a naturalist who named hundreds of new species at the beginning of the 1800s.  He identified over 1,000 species of beetle alone, and over 400 other insects.  He saw and described the Say’s Phoebe during an expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819.

But isn’t it kind of silly to associate this enigmatic little creature to a man from the 1800s?  And what did Native Americans call the Say’s Phoebe?  … What is in a name anyway?

… Alas, we must communicate.

 

You might have noticed that this spruce tree has a lot of cones.  Apparently, the year after a conifer goes through a period of stress – such as drought – the tree produces a crop of cones that is much larger than normal. The dark ones are immature.

This is a Black Spruce (there are no naturally occurring pine trees in interior or northern Alaska though spruce trees are often mistaken for them).  Black Spruce is looked at with disdain by a lot of Alaskans because it represents unbuildable wetlands fraught with frost lenses and mucky tundra.

But this mucky tundra is the Say’s Phoebe’s living room for the summer.  It spends its years flying between an arctic paradise and a tropical paradise.  To the Say’s Phoebe, this fair-sized Black Spruce (12-15 feet tall) is the perfect perch for hunting mosquitos, unbuildable wetlands and all.

 

 


I Love Chickens

In February 2011 my husband and I were able to make a 5 day visit to the Hawaiian island of Kauai and one thing that amazed us was the existence of chickens all over the place.  They seemed to have an uncanny ability to avoid getting hit by vehicles!  I’m sure it happens but we saw no evidence of chicken roadkill, even while they are constantly seen pecking and preening alongside nearly every single roadway.  Survival of the smartest, I guess.

Turns out they are called Red Junglefowl.  The Hawaiian name is Moa and according to the Hawaii Audubon Society wild populations exist only on Kauai.  It’s hard to know where the actual Junglefowl begins and the domestic chicken ends though, since they have interbred to the point of total confusion.

My guess, after a small amount of research, is that the dark brown chicken on the left is closer to true Junglefowl, and the one on the right is more of a domesticated chicken.  Both of these photos were taken at Brennecke’s Beach in Poipu, where they intermingled with the tourists.  (If you click on the photos you will get a lot more detail.)

Moa were brought to the Hawaiian islands by Polynesian colonists.  The birds pictured here would not be considered the truly wild Junglefowl that were once widespread on the islands.  In 1883 the mongoose was foolishly introduced to several Hawaiian islands, and although one dead mongoose was found alongside a road in Kauai in 1976, and other sightings have been reported, it seems not to have affected the Kauai population of Junglefowl.  Let’s hope that continues.

Lucky these chickens that live free lives.  They could have just as likely been born into a factory and lived out their lives in 8×10 cages with their beaks cut off.  Sorry to be gruesome but this is what our industrial food system has brought to our planet.  (Please consider not eating factory chicken!)

After all, the chicken is the nearest living relative to the Tyrannosaurus Rex!  Give them a little respect!


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!