Posts tagged “summer

Raven’s nest in moose antlers

A few years ago I went with my husband up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay.  We stopped a few different places including a storage yard and former state camp called Happy Valley where I found one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever happened upon… a raven’s nest in a mounted rack of moose antlers with two babies in it!

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Spruce Grouse, not hunted

Spruce GrouseThe spruce grouse is a very common bird in interior Alaska.   It’s one of several species of grouse that live in this state.

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!Spruce Grouse, female

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.

Spruce Grouse next to the Trans-Alaska PipelineThe 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 Spruce Grouse, chickreddish-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!

 

 

 


Butterfly Exits Cocoon

I imagine that most people who like birds don’t mind butterflies, so here’s a slideshow I created from photos taken last summer of a butterfly leaving a cocoon.  For over a week I kept the camera and its time lapse device set up outside, through heat and rain, waiting until it broke out of its temporary home… then the actual event lasted only a few minutes!  And because of memory card limitations I could only set the camera to take a photo every 30 seconds – I wish it could’ve been a shorter interval – but I’m still pleased with the few shots I got.

I don’t know the specific name of this butterfly but I’ve definitely seen it before.

Butterfly Leaving Cocoon 1Butterfly Leaving Cocoon 2

Butterfly Leaving Cocooon 3

Butterfly Leaving Cocoon 4

After the butterfly left the cocoon it crawled into some potato plant leaves and you can see that it dripped a dark fluid that looks like blood (but of course isn’t).  Apparently it’s a waste product that doesn’t come from their wings as I had first assumed but from their abdomen, being released after chrysalis, the cocoon stage.

ButterflyThe butterfly never opened its wings for me so I didn’t get that photo.  And I wish I knew the name of this butterfly!  Please comment if you have any idea.  Thanks and I hope everyone is having a terrific summer!


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.


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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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.


An Ode to Summer

That’s what this blog is, an ode to summer.  Alaskans worship summer and in January or February we start getting a bit disenchanted.  So this bird blog is self-administered therapy.  A reminder that the darkness and frigid temperatures will subside.

This blog is therapy in another way too…a way to take my mind off of things like politics, greed, pollution, disaster.  Stuff like that.  For some reason I believe that we should pay attention to the bad stuff in the world as much as the good stuff.  So you can imagine, I need a bird blog to take my mind off of it.

The first bird I’m going to blog about is a flying squirrel… yeah, not exactly a bird but, you see, it’s my spirit animal

Supposedly seeing a flying squirrel is somewhat rare, but the darn things just won’t leave me alone!

All spring, summer and fall they frequent my bird feeder.  For several months in the summer they are as regular as clockwork, arriving about 1am and gorging themselves on sunflower seed hearts.  I say “they” because I have no way of telling if it’s the same squirrel or several different ones. Only one time did I see two at once, making a ruckus in their frantic search for the feeder that had been moved to a different location.  Since then, my husband and I have nixed the bird feeder and just regularly put a small amount of seed out on the deck railing.  No need for gorging since sunflower hearts are not a natural food for chickadee or squirrel.

These photos were taken May 29, 2010 in the wee hours of the morning.  It hardly even gets dark at that time of year, although I did I have to lighten the photos somewhat.

The real clincher that convinced me the flying squirrel is my spirit animal is that one jumped on my face inside of my father’s home.  Yes, that’s right, on my face, inside a house.

My father lives in Minnesota and during a visit, as I was walking into the bathroom, I noticed the cat was looking at something and twitching its tail.  Not something that would alarm me.  But as soon as I entered the bathroom a small furry thing landed on my face, blocking my vision.  My very first thought was, how did the cat get on my face!?  Almost immediately it jumped off, landing on the floor and scurrying away. (The flying squirrels down there are about half the size of the one pictured here.)  My cries of alarm brought family members and even though my father said to kill it, my husband captured it and set it loose outside.  My hero.

Turns out, flying squirrels get inside my Dad’s house on a regular basis.  One was even found dead.  It landed on a cactus and got stuck there and died.  Who knows how long it was there before they found it.  True story.  That dusty museum has a lot of stories, but never before had a flying varmint landed on someone’s face.  (Yes, it did scratch my face just enough to draw 3 tiny drops of blood, after which being wiped off you couldn’t tell where they had been.  And no, I didn’t seriously consider rabies shots.)

Such an intimate encounter is bound to pique the curiosity so I did some research on the flying squirrel.  Little had I known it eats truffles, a type of fungus, as its main food, found in the ground and around rotting trees.  Lichen, insects, buds, flowers, scavenged meat, berries and tree sap are other dining options when they can be found.  They often cache lichen and seeds when supplies are scarce, and steal red squirrel caches when the poor saps are hibernating.

These 2 photos were taken July 24, 2011.  You can click on the one on the left and it will enlarge quite a bit.

Flying squirrels do not hibernate and are active all winter, though they do enter torpor, a deep sleep, as long as it’s about 40 degrees below zero F or colder. They often share nests, most commonly 2-5 individuals who suffer the frigid cold huddled together inside tree cavities in summer or witch’s brooms in winter.  Witch’s brooms are dense snarls of branches that occur when a fungus attacks spruce trees. Squirrels hollow them out and line them with moss, lichen, feathers or anything they can find that could make their slumber that much more comfy. 

Sometimes I feel like I enter torpor in the winter too.   I defintely sleep more when its 40 degrees below zero or colder.  I’m nocturnal and prefer small groups or being alone, just like the flying squirrel.  I identify with the little guys, and am fascinated by them.  So it’s decided, the flying squirrel is my spirit animal.

And now, on to the birds!