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July 25, 2016

Bird of the Week – Eurasian Bullfinch

Eurasian Bullfinch Female, Fairbanks, 1996

There are some birds that are vagrants, birds that turn up in Alaska but have no business – or anyone to breed with – in the area. Maybe the migration instructions in their brains got wired wrong; maybe they are pioneers trying to expand the range. We’ll be looking at some vagrants intermittently the next few months. This isn’t a very good photo, but it is unique in one way: it’s the one of the first bird photos WC took. In 1996, an Eurasian Bullfinch female turned up at a feeder on Rosie Creek Road, outside of Fairbanks, in the dark…

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Bird of the Week – Great Blue Heron

Great Blue fishing the shoreline, Valdez

The Great Blue Heron is visual evidence that birds did indeed evolve from dinosaurs; when you see a Great Blue in flight, you can almost think you are seeing a pterodactyl. Great Blues are found in Alaska throughout Southeast and in Southcentral Alaska as far west as Seward. There are irregular reports from Cook Inlet. While Great Blues are equally at home in marine and freshwater environments, in Alaska they are mostly marine and estuarine.   Although this is primarily a fish eater, wading (often belly deep) along the shoreline of oceans, marshes, lakes, and rivers, it also hunts upland areas for rodents…

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Thank You, Johnny Ellis


I was thinking about the retirement of Sen. Johnny Ellis this week. He has served Alaska for more than half the years we’ve been a state. It’s not a secret that I’m one of his most ardent fans and I am considering asking him for an 8-by-10 signed glossy photo to put on my desk to help me get through next year’s “Gavel to Gavel”coverage.  I wasn’t able to attend his retirement party because the sockeye were flooding Tutka Lagoon and they wouldn’t wait or find my fish smoker by themselves. I used to have a standard summer rant. It…

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Bird of the Week – Snow Goose

Snow Geese, Creamer's Field, Fairbanks

The Snow Goose is one of the most abundant waterfowl species in North America, maybe in the world. Oddly, it doesn’t occur in great abundance in Alaska. (Bonus points for identifying the four other species in this photo.) But they do range west as far as Interior Alaska during spring migration, although not every year.  There are breeding birds in the northeastern corner of Alaska’s Arctic coast, but generally Snow Geese breed in far northern Canada. Snow Geese have two color morphs – thought to be different species until 1983. The white morph, shown here, is overwhelmingly the more common…

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Juneau, Like An Outhouse On Fire


I like parables. They were my favorite sermons growing up. Oh, look! A story that has a problem and a lesson in it. What a cool way to make a point. Sometimes life presents its own parables and I try to pay attention. This week my watery cul de sac presented such a story. It has to do with something we don’t like to talk about often, but hold your nose and we’ll get through this together. Rural Alaska has a waste issue. Most people on the road system flush their toilets and – well – who knows – it…

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Bird of the Week – Red Phalarope

Red Phalarope, Barrow, Alaska

WC will say at the top these are poor-quality photos. Taken in 2002, WC’s camera then was something called an Olympus C2500L, which was a state of the art camera in its day, but the state of the art was pretty primitive compared to today’s digital cameras. WC’s skills left a lot to be desired, too. But a couple of years ago when WC was featuring Phalaropes, this species got overlooked. The Red Phalarope is the most pelagic of the three phalarope species, spending up to 11 months each year in marine habitats. Its migratory routes and winter areas are…

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Bird of the Week – Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird Male, Peat Ponds, Fairbanks

Interior Alaska is near the northerly limit of Red-winged Blackbirds’ range. The Red-winged Blackbird might be the most abundant (and best studied) bird in the U.S. The species breeds in marsh and upland habitats from interior Alaska and central Canada to Costa Rica, and from California to the Atlantic Coast and West Indies. Although primarily associated with large freshwater marshes and prairies, it also nests in small patches of marsh vegetation in roadside ditches, saltwater marshes, rice paddies, hay fields, pasture land, fallow fields, suburban habitats, and even urban parks. The Red-winged Blackbird is also known for its polygynous social…

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Bird of the Week – Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird, Shaw Creek Flats, Alaska

Some years ago, Mrs. WC got a telephone call from a lady who reported there were a lot of “baby Ravens” in her yard. After careful questioning, Mrs. WC established they were Rusty Blackbirds which, after all, are nearly black, even if they don’t otherwise resemble Common Ravens very much, and “baby Ravens” not at all. Joking aside, Rusty Blackbirds are a species in trouble. Their populations have declined catastrophically. Data from long-term surveys like the North American Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Counts suggest that Rusty Blackbird numbers have plummeted a staggering 85-95% since the mid-1900’s. It’s likely some combination of…

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Reverse Robin Hood Economics


I’ve watched a particular boat for the last several years. It’s a 15-and-a-half-foot wooden boat built decades ago by my neighbor Dick Dunn. The little boat sat submerged, tied to a piling, during most tides. Barnacles and blue mussels took up residence and seemed quite happy shacked up from bow to stern. See, another neighbor had acquired the boat and got pretty busy with a million projects. It happens. Every time I drove past that forgotten vessel, it made me a tiny bit sad. The boat had been built for a wonderful woman here on the bay who has since…

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Bird of the Week – Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse Closeup, Creamer's Refuge, Fairbanks

We’re pretty much done with raptors. It’s time to look at birds a little lower down the food chain. And in Interior Alaska, that means the Ruffed Grouse. This is Dennis, a Ruffed Grouse who was determined to drive all humans out of his territory. Dennis isn’t with us any longer; it’s not a behavioral style that confers an evolutionary advantage; his genes have left the pool. Like every species of Galliformes that WC has encountered, the Ruffed Grouse has an elaborate courtship display, including the display shown here and very impressive “drumming.” While perched on a log, stump, boulder,…

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