Last summer my husband and I were able to take a 3 month trip from Texas to Alaska. We spent most of our time in New Mexico and Colorado, in May, and both of those states provided some amazing birding.
Salida, Colorado was a birding bonanza: Frantz Lake along the Arkansas River and the nearby Sands Lake (in the next post).
County road 154 is a birding spot in itself. Mountain bluebirds and tree swallows nest in the birdhouses that have been erected along the road. Canada geese and mule deer abound. *Click on the first image below and scroll to the right to view a larger image and see captions.*
Frantz Lake itself is a nice little turquoise-tinted reservoir next to the Arkansas River. Here I found 2 grebes, a western and a pied-billed, common mergansers, and white-faced ibises (a first!). Along with Canada geese, blackbirds and mallards.
A little ways away, by the Arkansas River, a red-tailed hawk flew overhead and white-crowned sparrows were foraging and flitting around on the dirt trail.
(Some of these images are sized 1920×1080 so can be used for that size monitor, I kept the copyright small. I like desktop wallpaper with a lot of blank space so it doesn’t feel cluttered and a couple of these photos work well for that.)
It snowed while we were in Salida in the middle of May – it’s at 7000 feet – but that was the day we were leaving and the sun came out just a bit later, so no harm done. 🙂 Thanks for looking!
The Ala Moana Mall in Honolulu Hawaii is not exactly a birder’s paradise. If you’ve ever been there you’ve probably seen the stage near the Waikiki side entrance. On the day of my visit it was draped in red curtains that created a deeply textured vision of color on the floorboards. Hence the photographs.
Oftentimes birds are there, probably because people feed them. Mall birds. Not exactly picturesque herons or majestic bluebirds. More like zebra doves and rock doves (pigeons). (Are pigeons, like, flying mall rats?)
But every one of those mall birds are just as worthy and deserving of life as any heron or bluebird. So it broke my heart when I discovered that this little zebra dove had its legs entangled with some of kind of thread or very thin fibers. The poor thing managed to walk but its appearance was disheveled, skinny, sickly. The entanglement was taking its toll. You can see its entwined legs clearly in the silhouette photo on the left (click to enlarge).
I look back at that moment with regret. I regret that I did not help that bird. I could have found some big gloves and grabbed the bird and cut that twisted piece of twine that was holding it hostage. That would have at least given it a chance.
As you can see it came right over to me, along with several pigeons, probably looking for a generous person tossing scraps. It was close enough to me so that I could have done it!
But no, there were no gloves and I am not that gutsy. Not that spontaneous. And maybe it’s not a good idea to touch a bird that might be diseased or to take these matters into my own hands.
All I know is, we need to do more for the birds that are affected by our carelessness.
This is what a healthy zebra dove looks like, found right down the street near the Ala Wai Boat Harbor.
The average adult raven is about 2.5 pounds and it’s hard to tell adults from juveniles. The below video shows a power struggle between ravens at a food source. At the very beginning you can see a raven on the far left grab another raven’s tail feathers with his beak and pull him or her away from the food. Another seems to join in. (By the way, if the video is blurry find the settings in the bottom right hand corner of the player and change it to a higher resolution. Youtube automatically chooses a low setting so it will download faster.)
After reading Ravens in Winter, a book by Bernd Heinrich, I’m inclined to believe that the commotion going on in the video has to do with a power struggle (to gain access to the food) between the juvenile birds and the adults. According to Heinrich, adults are usually silent at carcasses (dead animals in the wild), and juveniles are very noisy. The juveniles “yell” at kills and make a commotion, possibly to attract more juveniles to the kill, in order to compete with the adults and gain access to the food.
Heinrich “proves” through observation and careful note-taking that ravens actively recruit other ravens to food piles. He speculates, after studying raven behavior for many years, that this recruitment is not necessarily altruistic, or done in order to get the favor back some day. Instead, it is probably related more to “gaining or maintaining access to the food than to sharing the wealth.”
Juveniles actively recruit, in order to overwhelm by sheer numbers, the adults at the carcass, so that the adults will give up defending the carcass, which they do when they are just too outnumbered.
So if we can extend this power struggle at carcasses in the field to city food (trash) then it’s possible the squawking raven in the video, the one being pulled from the food by his or her tail feathers, is likely a juvenile, being bossed around by the adults, who are not as vocal.
I strongly encourage any bird lover to read Ravens in Winter. This bird that I see nearly every day of my life is actually quite mysterious and Heinrich helps us understand their possible and likely motivations.
Thanks for reading! Happy New Year!
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!
I don’t think this is a very common sight on the coastal plains of northern Alaska (or anywhere?), but as my husband drove in to Prudhoe Bay last spring, he spied this unusually large gathering of various birds.
Kind of hard to believe that little twig can hold him up. He must be all fluff.
And life goes on….
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.
My 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. I’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.