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.