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October 28, 2016

Bird of the Week – Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitcher, Yakutat Forelands

WC overlooked the Short-billed Dowitcher when posting its close cousin, the Long-billed Dowitcher, back in August 2015. It can be pretty tough to tell a Long-billed from a Short-billed. Location helps: if you are on the coast, it’s more likely a Short-billed; if you are further from the ocean, it’s more likely a Long-billed. Bill length and coloration vary a lot. The calls are different, but both Dowitchers spend most of their time in a frenzied feeding, their bills probed full length in the mud, like a busy sewing machine. Dowtichers are not well-studied. Even their name is a puzzle….

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Bird of the Week – Dunlin

Dunlin, Old Chevak, Yukon Delta

The Dunlin is larger than most sandpipers but at 8.5 inches, still pretty small. It’s understandable if you don’t recognize it. Dunlin has two very different plumages. In the winter it’s a drab grey bird. In the summer, in breeding plumage, it’s a striking rusty-backed, black-bellied fellow. During courtship season, on the edge of western and northern Alaska, it can be hard to sleep for the incessant courtship song, a rolling harsh trill that sounds something like jrrre jrrre jrrreijijiji jrrr jrrr jrrr. Dunlin males are extremely enthusiastic about their courtship song. WC has used the alarm display of Dunlin on…

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Bird of the Week – Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl, Eagle River, Alaska

We haven’t looked at an owl for a couple of years. Here’s a tiny little owl found in southcentral and southeastern Alaska, the Northern Saw-whet Owl. This little owl is even smaller than the Boreal Owl, just 8 inches long. Males weigh about the same as an American Robin. Like the Boreal Owl, it’s a cavity nester, and accepts nest boxes like this one. You won’t often see a Northern Saw-whet Owl; they are nocturnal, secretive and shy. But the strong white eyebrows you see here are a distinctive field mark. In the open, the bird looks top heavy with…

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Bird of the Week – Red Knot

Red Knots, Egg Islands, Cordova, Alaska

One of the parts of this weekly column that WC likes is that sometimes WC is lucky enough to photograph new Alaska birds. Milo Burcham, a terrific nature photographer based in Cordova, Alaska, allowed WC to tag along on  boat trip out to the mudflats west of the mouth of the Copper River in May 2016. The target was Red Knots, a handsome, but very spooky, shorebird. We found them. Handsome birds. And maybe even more spooky than advertised. There are big numbers to begin with, and if you get closer than 200 meters, they are gone. This photo was…

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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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