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May 25, 2016

Bird of the Week – Merlin

Merlin, Denali Highway

Here’s another falcon, slightly smaller than last week’s Peregrine Falcon. The Merlin is a remarkably fierce predator; WC has watched them kill and fly off with birds as large as a Lesser Yellowlegs. An adult female Merlin weighs  about 8.5 ounces; a Lesser Yellowlegs weighs about 3 ounces. That’s 40% of the Merlin’s weight. Merlins seem to prefer open and semi-open areas, nesting on the edges of fields or swamps. Their primary prey is small (and not so small) birds. Alaska’s Merlins are all migratory; the winter from the Southwestern U.S. down to Central America. They breed across Alaska, but…

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Bird of the Week – Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon, Tanana Lakes, Fairbanks

It’s hard not to like the Peregrine Falcon. In many ways, it is the poster child for the environmental movement. The species was nearly extirpated by DDT and other environmental contaminants. The populations have recovered and adapted to humankind to some extent. It’s not at all unusual to see Peregrines nesting on skyscrapers in big cities, feeding on pigeons. But the Peregine is wholly admirable in its own right. A cosmopolitan bird, it can be found in deserts, swamps, alpine reasons and agricultural area.   WC has seen Peregrines in almost all Alaska habitats. It’s a champion flier, with some birds…

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Bird of the Week – Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier with Prey, Donnelly Training Area, Ft. Greely, Alaska

There’s still a few Alaska raptors to have a look at. This week it’s the Northern Harrier, formerly known as the Marsh Hawk. This is how you will most often see a Harrier, flying low over an open field or swamp, rocking back and forth a bit, head turned down, looking for prey. Northern Harriers hunt a wide range of prey, mainly small- and medium-sized mammals and birds, coursing low and buoyantly over the ground. Unlike other hawks, the Harrier frequently relies heavily on auditory cues, as well as visual ones, to capture prey. Annual breeding numbers and productivity are strongly influenced by…

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Bird of the Week – Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson's Hawk, Delta Barley Project, Delta Junction

The Swainson’s Hawk is uncommon, even rare, in Alaska. This bird was seen and photographed in Interior Alaska in 2013. The normal range of this species extends only to the Canadian prairie. Oddly enough, a second Swainson’s Hawk was seen in Fairbanks that same spring. Like other Buteos, this is a polymorphic species. This is a dark morph, as was the one in Delta, although they are obviously different birds. Swainson’s Hawks are best known for their spectacular annual migrations, moving in vast flocks from North America to the pampas of South America. It’s not uncommon for hawk watches in…

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Bird of the Week – Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk self-identifying; Delta Barley Project, Delta Junction

The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in Alaska. This another polymorphic hawk, presenting a bewildering variety of colorations. In fact, the dark morph, “Harlan’s Hawk,” was at one point thought to be a different species. In Alaska, look for the dark head and the dark “belly band” and you’ve probably got a Red-tailed. In flight, it’s a little easier. Red-tailed Hawks breed throughout interior and southcentral Alaska. Alaska and Canada birds migrate to the southwest U.S., to Mexico and Central America and even to northern South America. Elsewhere in the U.S. they are present year-round. Camera geek stuff:…

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Bird of the Week – Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk, Delta Barley Project

Rough-legged Hawks are rare in most of Alaska; they breed on the North Slope along the bluffs along the north-flowing rivers. But they move through eastern Alaska in the spring to get there. The big agricultural fields have a lot of small rodents, which gives the hawks a chance to fuel up before heading further north.  This bird is snacking on a Red Squirrel. The hawk takes its name from its heavily feathered legs; most hawks have bare, unfeathered legs. Presumably, it’s an adaptation to the bird’s seasonal arctic habitat. The Rough-legged Hawk is polymorphic, meaning it comes in a…

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Bird of the Week – Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk Juvenile, Chena Hot Springs Road, Fairbanks

Alaska has two Accipters, the genus of smaller hawks with rounded wings and long tails. This is the smaller of the two, the Sharp-shinned Hawk. This is a juvenile, still counting on mom and dad for meals. In fact, he caught WC’s attention by his incessant squawking, begging for food. WC would guess that he’s pretty near his last delivered meal, that his parents were gong to leave him on his own pretty soon. If he kept that noise going all night he would have wound up a snack for a Great-horned Owl. The Sharp-shined Hawk feeds almost exclusively on smaller…

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Bird of the Week – Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle on Nest, Alaska Range

Raptors get all the publicity. Let’s look at some raptors, then. The Golden Eagle, much less common than the Bald Eagle, is one of North America’s largest raptors. At least in Alaska, Golden Eagles tend to return to the same nest year after year, nesting there from about age 4 to age 20 or older. Each year the breeding pair adds more sticks to the nest, and the cumulative effect can be very impressive, as you can see here. Alaska’s Golden Eagles migrate to South America for the winter. One of the world’s experts on Golden Eagles lives in Fairbanks….

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Bird of the Week – Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow, Yakutat, Alaska

Barn Swallows are uncommon in Interior and Southcentral Alaska, but pretty easy to find in Southeastern. WC got this photo near the Yakutat Airport. For many years, WC chased steelhead trout along the Situk River, outside of Yakutat. For obvious reasons, WC carried only a pocket camera while fishing, so image quality isn’t great here. The Barn Swallow is the most widely distributed and abundant swallow in the world. It breeds throughout most of North America, Europe, and Asia and winters in Central and South America, southern Spain, Morocco, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, India, Indochina, Malaysia, and Australia….

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Bird of the Week – Bank Swallow

Bank Swallow Posing at Nest Entrance, Chevak in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge

Yep, another swallow. This one more correctly named, because uniquely among Alaska swallows, it excavates a nesting cavity in a dirt bank. The Bank Swallow’s scientific name – Riparia riparia – neatly describes its preference for nesting in the lakeside and streamside (riparian) banks and bluffs of lakes, rivers and streams. This is a highly social land-bird with a Holarctic (Eastern and Western Hemispheres) breeding distribution. It nests in colonies ranging from 10 to almost 2,000 active nests. One of only a few passerines with an almost cosmopolitan distribution, it is one of the most widely distributed swallows in the world. In the Old World,…

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