Posts tagged “feather

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.


To Feed or Not to Feed

Junco that just hit the window

This junco hit our second story window and sat stunned, but alive, here on the ground last summer.  Juncos are sweet little birds that we see from May to September all around our house pecking at seeds on the ground.  They visit our feeder during this time but mostly stay on the floor of the deck or on the ground under the feeder, hopping around picking up fallen sunflower heart pieces and birch seeds.  They can leave so late in the season, I believe, because they are only flying as far as the southern coast of Alaska where it doesn’t freeze so hard in the winter.

Junco that hit the windowMy husband and I immensely love watching our feeder birds:  redpolls, juncos, chickadees, and hairy and downy woodpeckers.  He often places small amounts of bird seed on the snow mounds that cover the deck railings and flower pots in the winter so that redpolls don’t have to mob the feeder and so that we can see them closer.  We stand at the window and marvel at how they can live at 30 below zero, and at their quick movements and little arguments.

But I wonder that having a bird feeder is the best thing for the birds.  Many birds hit our windows, but by far most of them end up alive (though certainly a bit damaged afterwards).  After they hit the windows as they sit stunned until they are able to fly away, they are undoubtedly vulnerable to predation.  There’s a neighborhood cat that I fear visits in the wee hours of the morning in the summer and I have no idea if it uses the feeder as a baiting station.  I have no evidential reason to believe this but am concerned.  Other than that cat our neighborhood totally lacks outdoor cats as far as we can tell.  This one we’ve only seen twice in our 5 years here.  (And our two cats don’t go outside without being chaperoned.)

Feeding birds seems on the surface not a bad idea.  But is it good to get them reliant on what we provide?  So that they lose just a little bit of their natural foraging skills to their eventual detriment?  What about the seed itself… are there pesticides on it, or fungicides?  Is it even good for a redpoll or chickadee to eat that much sunflower heart instead of what it would normally find in nature?  Could there sometimes be mold on the seeds that would be dangerous to the birds?  Is feeding birds related to the sickness of chickadees that results in 6-10% of them having beak deformities?  I’ve read up a bit on this topic and there are not a lot of answers to be had (although plenty of guesses and opinions).

So unfortunately, I’m not convinced that feeding birds is the absolute right thing to do, but I’m unwilling to give it up unless I see direct evidence that it harms them more than it helps them.  The only way I know for sure that it harms them is when they hit the windows.  Redpolls eating seed outside windowI’ve went to great lengths to try to prevent it, such as wiring and beads that I once strung across our largest window for a few years.  The thing is, I know that they would hit the windows even if we didn’t purposefully draw them here to our house with food.

Alas, it would be a sad sad day for my husband and I if we were to decide that the harm to the birds outweighs the benefits (to us and the birds).

You can see here the redpolls chowing down today on the seed my husband has strewn on the snow in front of the window.  The temperature gauge doesn’t go colder than 20 below – it’s about 30 below zero (F) right now.  I can’t imagine those poor little guys can’t use some extra food at this temperature!

But am I justifying?  This summer I plan to try something else on the windows:  CDs strung on wires or string.  I’ve also switched out the bird feeder when it was just too hard to clean anymore.  Any tips are welcome!  Thanks for reading.


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


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!       —————————

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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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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!