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October 25, 2016

Bird of the Week – Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitcher, Yakutat Forelands

WC overlooked the Short-billed Dowitcher when posting its close cousin, the Long-billed Dowitcher, back in August 2015. It can be pretty tough to tell a Long-billed from a Short-billed. Location helps: if you are on the coast, it’s more likely a Short-billed; if you are further from the ocean, it’s more likely a Long-billed. Bill length and coloration vary a lot. The calls are different, but both Dowitchers spend most of their time in a frenzied feeding, their bills probed full length in the mud, like a busy sewing machine. Dowtichers are not well-studied. Even their name is a puzzle….

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What took you so damn long?


We all have different breaking points. I realize mine may be very different than yours, and Sens. Lisa Murkowski’s and Dan Sullivan’s, when it comes to our tolerance levels of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Both Murkowski and Sullivan recently came out condemning Trump after a tape came to light with the candidate bragging about sexual assault. He was quite proud of grabbing women in their genitalia and thought it was funny they wouldn’t do anything about it. Not all U.S. senators share the disdain of Trump’s statement. Alabama’s Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions thought the language used by Trump was…

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Bird of the Week – Dunlin

Dunlin, Old Chevak, Yukon Delta

The Dunlin is larger than most sandpipers but at 8.5 inches, still pretty small. It’s understandable if you don’t recognize it. Dunlin has two very different plumages. In the winter it’s a drab grey bird. In the summer, in breeding plumage, it’s a striking rusty-backed, black-bellied fellow. During courtship season, on the edge of western and northern Alaska, it can be hard to sleep for the incessant courtship song, a rolling harsh trill that sounds something like jrrre jrrre jrrreijijiji jrrr jrrr jrrr. Dunlin males are extremely enthusiastic about their courtship song. WC has used the alarm display of Dunlin on…

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Alaskan’s Aren’t Buying Dunleavy theater


This week, on the eve of Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend Day, Mat-Su Sen. Mike Dunleavy, staged a hilariously bizarre news event at an Anchorage Fred Meyer. Not since Sarah Palin was interviewed on TV while turkeys were being butchered in the background has there been a more awkward setup. Flanked by a beauty shop sign offering waxing, and several store managers wondering why the hell a state senator was holding a press conference on their private property, Dunleavy said he chose the location because it is a “small business” and lots of people shop there. Fred Meyer, for as lovely…

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Bird of the Week – Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl, Eagle River, Alaska

We haven’t looked at an owl for a couple of years. Here’s a tiny little owl found in southcentral and southeastern Alaska, the Northern Saw-whet Owl. This little owl is even smaller than the Boreal Owl, just 8 inches long. Males weigh about the same as an American Robin. Like the Boreal Owl, it’s a cavity nester, and accepts nest boxes like this one. You won’t often see a Northern Saw-whet Owl; they are nocturnal, secretive and shy. But the strong white eyebrows you see here are a distinctive field mark. In the open, the bird looks top heavy with…

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Bird of the Week – Red Knot

Red Knots, Egg Islands, Cordova, Alaska

One of the parts of this weekly column that WC likes is that sometimes WC is lucky enough to photograph new Alaska birds. Milo Burcham, a terrific nature photographer based in Cordova, Alaska, allowed WC to tag along on  boat trip out to the mudflats west of the mouth of the Copper River in May 2016. The target was Red Knots, a handsome, but very spooky, shorebird. We found them. Handsome birds. And maybe even more spooky than advertised. There are big numbers to begin with, and if you get closer than 200 meters, they are gone. This photo was…

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Bird of the Week – Pacific Golden Plover

Pacific Golden Plover, Gambell, St. Lawrence Island

Until 1993, American and Pacific Golden Plovers were thought to be one species. In that year, the Bird Gods – the American Ornithological Union – split them. In breeding plumage, it’s pretty easy to tell them apart: the Pacific’s white stripe extends all the way down the side, where the American Golden Plover’s ends at the shoulder. If you’ve been to Hawai’i, you’ve seen these birds on the lawns and golf courses. They are distinctly more approachable there than breeding territory. Pacific Golden Plovers are awesome migrants. They fly directly from Hawai’i to Alaska, for example; nonstop. The next time…

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Driving To Alaska’s Political Madness


My parents first came to Alaska in the ’60s, driving a red and white Volkswagen bus. They came from Virginia and like so many Alaskans, they came for one year – that was almost 50 years ago and they never left. I’m happy to report I’m making the trip they did, though by a more northerly route. It’s a bit of a shock to my Alaskan mind to drive through four states in a day without going through a foreign country. There is so much to take in on open road and border crossings. You can drive for days on…

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Bird of the Week – Brandt’s Cormorant

Brandt's Cormorant, Small St. Lazaria National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

We’ll finish up cormorants with the Brandt’s Cormorant. Unlike the other three, this species breeds only in North America, and reaches the northerly limit of its range at Kodiak Island. This species’ life history and populations are tied to the rich upwelling associated with deep upwelling currents like the California Current. Long-term monitoring of the population at Farallon Islands, California, the single largest colony of the species, has helped establish the relationship between breeding success and the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which determines the timing and degree of nutrient-rich upwelling, and hence food availability. It’s pretty easy to tell this species form the other…

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Open Thread: The Shrimp Whisperer


Indie Alaska, a project of Alaska Public Media has released this amazing short doc on Al Laudert and his shrimp art pieces. It’s just too fun not too watch.

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