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September 28, 2016

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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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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Bird of the Week – Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant, Old Chevak, Alaska

WC hasn’t seen very many Double-crested Cormorants in Alaska. This one was on a tide-blown snag on the otherwise treeless Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, near Old Chevak. The Double-crested Cormorant is the most numerous and most widely distributed species of the six North American cormorants, but probably the least numerous in Alaska. In the U.S. and Canada, it is the only cormorant to occur in large numbers in the interior as well as on the coasts. A few Double-crested Cormorants winter in the Snake River Canyon here in Idaho. Probably more than any other bird species, the Double-crested Cormorant is…

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Bird of the Week – Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant, Sitka Sound, Alaska

The Pelagic Cormorant is the smallest and most widely distributed of six cormorant species commonly seen in North America and the four species of cormorant seen in Alaska (we had a look at a Red-faced Cormorant sometime ago). This is another mis-named bird species. Despite its name, Pelagic Cormorants are in-shore specialists, It feeds primarily on solitary fish and invertebrates on the bottom. It can be difficult in the field to tell a Pelagic from its cousins, the Double-crested, Brandt’s and Red-faced, but with a little practice the smaller size and comparatively small bill are pretty good field marks. Pelagics have an extensive…

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Bird of the Week – Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser, Sitka, Alaska

The third species of Merganser that breeds in North America is the Hooded Merganser. The male likely wins the prize for snappiest headgear among North American birds. Hoodies are the smallest of the three mergansers, and the only one that breeds only in North America. A cavity nester, it prefers cavities – or manmade nest boxes – in old trees near or over water. Hoodies have extensive courtship displays, including the upward neck stretch. Hoodies have an attitude that is much larger than their diminutive size. They’re fun to watch. Unfortunately, humankind’s relentless cutting of old growth forests, where it’s…

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Bird of the Week – Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser Male, North Fork Chena River

All three species of North American mergansers breed in Alaska, although one rarely makes it past the Panhandle. We’ve looked at the Common Merganser already. Now we’ll have a look at the other two. The Red-breasted Merganser is the most northerly breeding of the mergansers, found all the way to the North Slope. It’s also the bird with the second-snappiest hair-do (feather-do?), trailing only next week’s species. This is a diving duck, foraging as deep at 15-20 feet underwater for fish, especially smolts. Red-breasted Mergansers don’t breed until they are two years old, and breed late in the season, with…

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Bird of the Week – Parasitic Jaeger

Parasitic Jaeger on a Nest, Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge

Back in June, we looked at a Long-tailed Jaeger. This is one of that species’ relatives, the Parasitic Jaeger. Even among gulls and jaegers, Parasitic Jaegers are unsavory characters. A major part of their diet is obtained through kleptoparasitism. They steal food from other birds, either by harassing the other birds till they drop if or, if it’s been swallowed, until the victim regurgitates it. Alaska-breeding Parasitic Jaegers aren’t exclusively kleptoparasites, unlike their east Atlantic cousins. Alaska’s birds also hunt and, truth be told, steal eggs. Hey, it’s a living. Parasitic Jeager are among the least known, least studied birds that…

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Bird of the Week – Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail, Chevak, Alaska

In the Western Hemisphere, the Yellow Wagtail’s range is restricted to Western Alaska and the North Slope east to the MacKenzie River in Canada. Science – specifically, the American Ornithological Union – has recently determined that the North American population is a separate species from the more widespread Asian population. The decision to create two species where there was one is called a “split.” Alaska’s bird is formally the Eastern Yellow Wagtail. And there are a bewildering number of subspecies.   Alaska’s birds probably winter in southern China and Taiwan, perhaps as far south as New Guinea.  Like a lot…

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Bird of the Week – Osprey

Osprey, Chena Lakes Flood Control, North Pole

Osprey are comparative newcomers to Interior Alaska. Note those talons, among the longest among all birds. The Osprey feeds almost exclusively on fish – another name for them is Fishhawk – and however slippery a fish might be, it’s unlikely to escape those talons. Osprey need about 100-115 days to raise their kids:  Three days from completion of the nest to lay the eggs; about 37 days to incubate the eggs to hatching; 50-55 days to fledge and 10-15 days to be ready to migrate. Longer if they have to build the nest from scratch.  If you are going to eat…

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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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