September 1, 2015

Bird of the Week – Stilt Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper, Peat Ponds, Fairbanks

Crikey, is there ever an end to these shore birds? Not yet. This week we have a mediocre photo of a fairly uncommon species in interior Alaska, the Stilt Sandpiper. The heavy barring and the reddish patch behind and below the eye distinguish this species from it cousins. The species breeds exclusively on the Arctic coast, east of Pt. Barrow. It winters on the Gulf of Mexico and down through Mexico and Central America. The origin of its name is a bit obscure; its legs aren’t appreciably longer than other sandpipers. Unless you are on the Beaufort Sea, you aren’t…

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Bird of the Week – Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper, Airport Ponds, Fairbanks

WC warned you there are lots of shorebirds in Alaska. Here’s another. The Pectoral Sandpiper passes through in migration en route to coastal areas for breeding. The distinctive, abrupt change from heavy streaking to pure white in the middle of the chest is a pretty good field mark. The male has an inflatable throat sac, which expands and contracts rhythmically during his display flights. The resulting vocalization is a series of hollow hoots, and is one of the most unusual sounds heard in summer on arctic tundra. This species winters on the pampas of Argentina, a remarkable migration, as much as 30,000…

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Bird of the Week – Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher, Peat Ponds, Fairbanks

A handsome, chunky shore bird with an impressive bill, the Long-billed Dowitcher is found throughout most of Alaska in migration, breeds on the wester coast and is very easily confused with its Short-billed cousin. Dowitchers forage with a rapid up and down motion, probing with their bill, like a frenzied sewing machine. It’s very distinctive. They are seen most often in the spring, during migration. It can be pretty tough to tell Long-billed from Short-billed Dowitchers in the field. The Long-billed has a bill length more than twice the thickness of the bird’s head; the Short-billed isn’t quite so magnificent….

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Bird of the Week – Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs, Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage

Happily, the range of the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs rarely overlap in Alaska. If you see the bird in Southcentral or Southeastern Alaska, it’s probably a Greater Yellowlegs. The Greater is, as the label suggests, somewhat larger than the Lesser Yellowlegs, but unless you have them side-by-side, it’s hard to tell. The bill is significantly longer in the Greater, longer than the head, which sometimes helps. The call is very different, but the Greaters aren’t quite as vocal as the Lessers. But if birding were easy, if telling Lessers from Greaters were easy, it wouldn’t be as much fun. Camera…

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Bird of the Week – Lesser Yellowlegs


The signature shore bird of the boreal forest might be the Lesser Yellowlegs. William Rowan got it exactly right when he wrote, “They will be perched there as though the safety of the entire universe depended on the amount of noise they made.”Lesser Yellowlegs provide biparental care to its kids but the females tend to depart breeding areas before chicks can fly, thus leaving males to defend the young until fledging. Whether it is one bird or two, they are noisy, with the distinctive tu tu tu calls. Even if it weren’t for the call the bright yellow legs that gives these birds their…

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Bird of the Week – Spotted Sandpiper


We’re back to the peeps, the sandpipers. It doesn’t take many weeks to see all of Alaska’s hummingbirds, after all. But there are lots and lots of shorebirds. The Spotted Sandpiper is fairly common in Alaska. The signature spots are only present during breeding season. But the Spottie also has a distinct, teetering or rocking behavior that makes it pretty easy to recognize in the field, even after it loses its spots. Spotted Sandpipers are among a small minority of birds that have reversed sex roles; i.e., females are more aggressive and active in courtship than males, and males take the…

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Bird of the Week: Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird, Kachemak Bay

We’ll take a break from the pesky shorebirds and take a moment to look at one of nature’s marvels. Just one of the 338 known hummingbird species breeds in Alaska, the Rufous Hummingbird. The Rufous Hummingbird is nothing less than astonishing. This tiny little 3.5 gram bird migrates thousands of kilometers, from the shores of Cook Inlet to northern Mexico. If you don’t find that amazing, your sense of wonder must be lost. The female builds the nest and in just a few days after arriving, lays and starts incubating eggs. Three weeks later, the kids are fledged and after building fat…

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Mudflats Goes Militia in Talkeetna


Friday 13:00, Tesoro Station Mini-Mart, Talkeetna, Alaska The Tesoro gas station mini-mart in Wasilla does not carry potatoes. As a matter of fact, they do not carry produce of any kind. I am supposed provide dinner tonight for my little corner of the militia encampment. Yes, I’m going back again this year to the Alaska Prepper/Survivalist/Militia Rendezvous, and instead of PB&J like last time, I’ve got steak, and asparagus – but I left the potatoes sitting on the counter at home. After a couple laps up and down the tiny aisles, I have to make a call. The closest thing…

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Bird of the Week: Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper, Chena Hot Springs Road, Fairbanks

Another sandpiper that doesn’t have much to do with sand, the Solitary Sandpiper nests in trees in the boreal forest. There aren’t many tree-nesting sandpipers, which makes the Solitary pretty unique. It gets its name because it’s different in another way, too: it migrates alone, not in a flock. This is a slender, fairly small, dark sandpiper, about 8 inches long. Its upper parts are dark olive-brown, finely spotted with whitish-buff to cinnamon-white. It has a white throat and belly, yellow legs and that distinctive narrow white eye-ring. The bird’s dark underwings contrast with white belly in flight. Camera geek stuff:…

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Bird of the Week: Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper, Delta Barley Project, Delta Junction

The Upland Sandpiper is a little different. Unlike most shorebirds, the Upland Sandpiper has only incidental contact with the shore. It spends its winters on the grasslands of South America and its summers on the grasslands of North America, including the fields of the Delta Agricultural Project, southeast of Delta Junction. Uppies have an amazing call, exactly a wolf whistle. This fellow was, literally, singing in the rain. This is a bigger sandpiper, 12 inches tall. The large, dark eye in a small head and the long, pale yellow legs make this an easy identification, even if he isn’t singing…

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