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!
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…
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!!!
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!
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.
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.