My friend and I drove into Homer, Alaska one evening in April of 2006. Our trip was fortunately timed – though not purposely – because we caught the eagles still in town. They were reaping the benefits of friendly human feeders before leaving for summer’s greener pastures.
As we drove down onto the Homer Spit eagles were perched on nearly every building. The sun’s long evening rays set them off and they were so still that we asked each other, are they real?? But as we drove down the spit to the Land’s End Hotel, we saw enough of them shuffle their feathers or blink their eyes to know they were totally and gorgeously real.
If I had only thought to take a photo… (Though at that time I used a plain point and shoot which would not have done justice to the moment.)
Over the next couple of days I took plenty of time to walk the beaches and absorb the feelings of a place that was (and still is) pretty much totally foreign to me. As a landlubber in Alaska I see plenty of wildlife, but usually not the same wildlife as near the coasts.
This was a common sight on the beaches, people leaving fish guts and carcases out for the eagles. Gulls and crows benefit too.
I never saw an eagle growing up (bald or not!) until about 10 years ago. Now I see them at least a couple of times a year in and around Fairbanks. It could be that as a child or young adult I wasn’t paying attention, but I’d be willing to bet that their population has grown throughout Alaska over the last couple of decades as it has generally in North America.
On the right you can see the mottled feather pattern of a 2 or 3 year old eagle. It takes 4 years for an eagle to get its adult plumage and wing length.
Valdez has quite a few bald eagles too, but I’ve never seen this many at a time anywhere but Homer. (Some day I’ll make it to Haines too for the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival and the Chilkat Preserve.) If you’re a bald eagle fan all three of these places should be on your list!
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!