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December 1, 2015

Bird of the Week – Eurasian Collared-Dove

Eurasian Collared-Dove, Denlai Highway, June 2009

WC has received complaints that flycatchers are boring, and that readers want to see more unusual birds. All right. How about a Eurasian Collared-Dove at Maclaren River on the Denali Highway? If you look at a range map for this species, you’ll see that officially they barely make it into Canada. Yet this Marco Polo among doves turned up in the mountains of interior Alaska. Here it is picking through straw along the road from a dog musher’s winter camping spot. The species was introduced in the Western Hemisphere in the Bahamas in the 1970s, and has explosively expanded its range to…

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Bird of the Week – Say’s Phoebe

Say's Phoebe, Steese highway

One more flycatcher before we move to other birds: the Say’s Phoebe. The most colorful of Alaska’s flycatchers, the dark head and back and cinnamon chest and belly are distinctive. Say’s Phoebes breed on rocky cliff with ledges, but also nest on manmade structures. The outbuildings at Maclaren Lodge on the Denali Highway have hosted an extended family of Say’s Phoebes for many years. You can also find nests under highway bridges in alpine areas. The species is widespread in Alaska, but uncommon. It’s always a treat to find one. Neither of its cousins, the Black and Eastern Phoebe, occur…

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Alaskan Reps Weigh In on Syrian Refugees


Even though state and local officials have no actual power over preventing or allowing refugees to be placed in their state – nearly all of them have decided to weigh in on the issue. The 10,000 or so refugees that were originally planned on being brought to the US for temporary placement would go through “13 separate security screenings – at the international, federal and state level – before they are considered for resettlement,” but that doesn’t seem to be enough for some members of the Alaskan delegation. While not a single one of the terrorists that attacked Paris last…

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Bird of the Week – Hammond’s Flycatcher

Hammond's Flycatcher, Creamer's Refuge, Fairbanks

We should all love flycatchers; they eat mosquitoes and other bugs. Among flycatchers, the Hammond’s is famously difficult to identify. Its appearance, behavior and vocalizations are very similar to Gray and Dusky Flycatchers. Happily, neither the Dusky nor Grey Flycatchers are commonly seen in Alaska. So a big-headed, mouse-grey backed flycatcher with a two-toned mandible is probably going to be a Hammond’s. Hammond’s both hawk bugs, flying from a perch, and probe for bugs, working through leaves and small branches. They are among the earliest flycatchers to arrive in the spring. Interior Alaska is northern limit of this species range;…

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GOP Parasite TransCanada Finally Shed


The divorce between Alaska and TransCanada became final this week. The Legislature voted to buy TransCanada’s share of a prospective natural gas pipeline from the North Slope. How the state ended up in that shotgun marriage is a lesson in corporate power and Republican legislators’ willingness to kowtow to it. Our story begins with Gov. Sarah Palin’s attempt to encourage a natural gas pipeline. It wasn’t a terrible idea to try to get an independent pipeline company directly involved in the project. When the Legislature passed the Alaska Natural Gasline Inducement Act in 2007, the idea was to incentivize a…

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Bird of the Week – Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Steese Highway

Another of the difficult Empidonax genus, this little flycatcher is believed to be a relative newcomer to Alaska. Most range maps show it not occuring in Alaska; this photo was taken near Chatanika, along the Steese Highway, northeast of Fairbanks. It’s one of the more distinctive members of the Empidonax species in its appearance and habits. The yellowish underparts and eye-ring make one of the more easily identified Emps. But it can be difficult to find in the field; its plumage blends well with both the mossy muskeg forests of its summer home or the Middle American rain forests of its winter home. In Interior Alaska, it…

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Bird of the Week (Hallowe’en Edition) – Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike, Denali Highway

It’s Hallowe’en, so we might as well have a masked bird, a “bad” bird, as our bird of the week. It’s a little scarier than your basic flycatcher. The Northern Shrike is a songbird that’s gone to the Dark Side. A predator, it has evolved that wicked hooked bill and carnivorous habits. This species is a determined pursuer of small birds and mammals, which it somewhat gruesomely impales on thorns and barbed-wire or wedges in forks of branchlets. Its nickname is “the butcher bird.” Its Latin name, Lanius excubitor, means “butcher watchman,” an appropriate name for this capable and alert predator. WC and…

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Bird of the Week – Alder Flycatcher

Alder Flycatcher perched in, yes, Alder, Fairbanks

Thurshes may be omnivore but the flycatchers pretty much limit themselves to bugs. There’s a genus of flycatchers called Empidonax, which would be on most birders’ list as the very hardest birds to properly identify. Except when they sing. And this handsome Alder Flycatcher was singing his tonsils syrinx off on a warm summer evening. The song, a lovely fee-bee-o, is the prettiest of all the flycatchers, in WC’s judgment. This is a largely boreal species, split from its cousin, the Willow Flycatcher, back in 1973.  The Alder Flycatcher migrates to northern South America where– and you can trust WC on this – there are…

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Bird of the Week – Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson's Thrush, Borgesson Botanical Garden, Fairbanks

A cousin to the Grey-cheeked Thrush, the Swainson’s Thrush is a bird of the boreal forest. If you hear a upward spiraling, flute-like call in the early morning or evening – or sometimes all night – it’s this species. This species forages higher off the ground than its cousins and uses more aerial, fly-catching techniques to obtain insect prey, a characteristic that earned it the name “mosquito thrush” in Maine. It’s a photographer’s delight; only the American Robin is more approachable. It’s also a species of concern. Populations are declining throughout its range, including Alaska. Camera geek stuff: f6.3, 1/80, ISO1600. For…

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Bird of the Week – Grey-cheeked Thrush

Grey-cheeked Thrush, Denali Highway

Another bird that visits Alaska to breed, prefering brushy habitats. WC has seen it most often near tree line in near-alpine country. Very shy and elusive, except during the start of breeding season when the males sing from the tops of bushes and the dwarf spruce. This might be the least-studied North American thrush. Except by range and song, it can be tough to distinguish from its cousin, the Bicknell’s Thrush. The song is lovely, flute-like and burry, rising in the middle and then ending on a downward slur. Another of WC’s favorites in alpine terrain. Camera geek stuff: f5.6,…

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