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February 7, 2016

Bird of the Week – Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal, Sunnyside Pond, Fairbanks

WC and Mrs. WC used to participate in a Birdathon for Arctic Audubon and the late Alaska Bird Observatory. It’s a fundraiser: birders get pledges for the number of species they will see in 24 hours, and then try to find as many species as they can. The more pledges and the more species, the greater the funds raised. One year, after 23.95 hours of non-stop birding, completely exhausted, we were standing at a very swampy pond in the Goldstream Valley, wondering how we would get another species. And, at the last possible minute, a Blue-winged Teal flew in. WC…

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Bird of the Week – Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider, Yukon National Wildlife Refuge

A close cousin to last week’s King Eider, the Spectacled Eider is another of Alaska’s arctic sea ducks. The Spectacled Eider is classified as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But WC suspects there was still poaching back in 2008 when this photo was taken. Getting this close involved a 90 minute stalk wiggling along on WC’s belly, and even then the bird was quite nervous. Birds that weren’t nervous likely wound up in a supper pot. Like a lot of ducks, after mating the drakes leave. But WC was able to find one small group still hanging around together….

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Bird of the Week – King Eider

King Eider Drake, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

A King Eider drake in breeding plumage is so outrageous looking, that it seems improbable. But, yeah, that’s really what they look like, easily the most colorful of North American waterfowl. This is a sea duck, that comes ashore to nest in tundra ponds along the Arctic coast of North America, including Alaska. The Latin name for this species is Somateria spectabilis. The genus name Somateria is a combination of the Greek words sōma or sōmatos, meaning “body”, and erion, meaning “wool”; the combination, “wooly body,” is a reference to the eider’s famously thick, soft down. The species name, spectabilis is Latin for “showy”, “remarkable” or “worth seeing”, a reference to the handsomeness of the adult…

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Bird of the Week – Surf Scoter

Surf Scoters, Eyak Lake, Cordova

The third and last scoter that breeds in Alaska – or North America for that matter – is the very cool Surf Scoter. With the white neck patches and that extravagant white and orange bill, it’s very easy to identify this species. This medium-sized sea duck breeds in boreal forest lakes of northern Canada and Alaska, and during nonbreeding periods is widely distributed in nearshore marine habitats along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America. Surf Scoters are aptly named. They forage in the surf, diving in and out of the waves. They are very strong swimmers, diving as…

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Bird of the Week – White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter, Steese Highway

This week we’ll look at another Scoter, that slightly obscure clade of ducks that breed in Alaska. This week, the White-winged Scoter. The drake White-winged is easily identified by the lovely white line under their eye, the orange bill with a black knob, all against an overall dark body. The white wing of their name are sometimes not visible when they are on the water. In flight, however, it’s another excellent field mark. Of the North America’s three species of scoters (White-winged, Surf, and Black Scoter), all of which inhabit Holarctic waters, the White-winged Scoter is the largest and best known, in…

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Bird of the Week – Black Scoter

Black Scoter, Denali National Park

We’ll start the New Year with a new duck. Most Alaskans are unaware of the clade of scoters, genus Melanitta. That’s okay, science doesn’t know very much about them either. The Black Scoter is one of the three scoter species that breed in Alaska. The Black Scoter drake in breeding plumage is easy to identify: it’s the only black duck with two-thirds of the top if its bill – technically, its culmen – bright yellow and the rest black. Black Scoters breed in coastal zones and less commonly up the Yukon and Tanana drainages. WC has found nesting birds on…

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Bird of the Week – Emperor Goose

Emperor Goose in Flight, Yukon Delta NWR

We’ll celebrate the holidays with a Christmas Goose, specifically Emperor Geese. The handsome Emperor Goose nests in the coastal salt marsh habitats of arctic and sub-arctic Alaska and Russia and winters primarily on coastal beaches along ice-free areas of the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island. Locally known as the “Beach Goose” from its winter habit of roosting and feeding near the water’s edge, the diet of this species consists largely of clams, mussels, and algae when wintering and staging in marine and estuarine habitats. When WC was in the Yukon Delta NWR photographing birds, the spring…

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Bird of the Week – Common Loon

Common Loon, Tanana Lakes

The Common Loon is easily the best known of North America’s loon species. The male’s haunting call is a signature sound of lake country. It breeds in Alaska, Canada and the northern edge of the Lower 48. It winters along the in-shore coastline of the Atlantic and Pacific. The populations seem to be stable, but there is real concern that mining activity and tar sands mining are contaminating the water bodies that Common Loons rely upon for nesting, feeding and migration. Because Common Loons are top tier predators in their habitats, they suffer from concentrations of lead and mercury. When you approach…

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Bird of the Week – Yellow-billed Loon

Yellow-billed Loon, Fairbanks

The Yellow-billed Loon is the largest loon, and likely the rarest in Alaska. This species’ bill is big, much larger than its cousin’s, the Common Loon. The bill isn’t always yellow; as shown here is is sometime more an ivory color. The Yellow-billed breeds on the Arctic Coast and on the north shores of the Seward Peninsula. It winters off the coast of Alaska, sometimes in large rafts of hundreds or even thousands of birds. In winter plumage, it can be very difficult to tell Yellow-billed Loons from Common Loons. The bill is your best guide, but at a distance…

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Bird of the Week – Red-Throated Loon

Red-throated Loon, Denali Highway

The smallest and slenderest of Alaska’s loons, in breeding plumage the Red-throated Loon is a beautiful bird. This species is much better than other loons at taking off, needing a shorter distance. So it is sometimes found breeding on surprisingly small ponds. It breeds inland and on the Arctic Bering Coasts. It winters down the coast in in-shore waters, as far south as southern California. The species is in decline in Alaska, and science doesn’t yet know why. WC has found them to be uncommon breeders on alpine lakes, but always a treat to find. Camera geek stuff: f7.1, 1/320, ISO400….

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